Minneapolis Conservation Districts are a Terrible Idea

mpls-dnkytown-house-of-hanson

The House of Hanson getting demolished.

You can feel the pace of change in Minneapolis these days. Cranes perch overhead like crows. It seems each week brings the pronouncement of another new building.

During her campaign, Mayor Betsey Hodges claimed she wanted to see 500,000 people living in Minneapolis by 2025.  And unlike most political promises, this one seems like it could come true! Ubiquitous media guru David Brauer recently wrote a column that this goal made him nervous, that the “sheer pace… is break-neck. Minneapolis would add 108,000 residents in 11 years, double the rate of even the two most recent fast-growth years. And that assumes no recessions.” Though Brauer remains a self-professed member of “Team Urbanism”, he’s not alone in having lingering concerns about the loss of small businesses, new architectural styles, or the loss of parking. Lots of people feel this way.

This week, Minneapolis’ density debate intensified when Councilmember Cam Gordon introduced a new idea for regulating development. The proposal is called “conservation districts,” and you should read all about them here or here or here. Succinctly described, they’re something more flexible than a historic district (e.g. Marcy-Holmes in Minneapolis, or Summit Avenue in St Paul) but with more clout than a small area plan (e.g. the 38th and Chicago SAP). They seem intended to slow down the pace of change in the city, and according to Eric Roper’s Star Tribune piece, would be particularly appealing to neighborhoods like Marcy-Holmes, Prospect Park, and Calhoun/Isles. He quotes city planner John Smoley as saying, “what we envision this regulating would be architectural styles, development patterns, scale, or landscape designs that are common to the district and notable to the district.”

If you want a charitable take on this proposal, look elsewhere. In my opinion this is a bad idea, poorly executed. Other than as an exercise in letting off NIMBY steam, I can’t fathom how how Minneapolis can be taking it seriously.

Who Gets a Voice?

The first big problem with the proposed conservation districts are that only property owners have a voice in the process. According to the proposed amendment [emphasis mine]:

599.730. Initiation of conservation district study. Application for initiation of a conservation district study shall be submitted on an application form approved by the planning director and shall be accompanied by evidence documenting the consent of owners who represent one -third (1/3) or more of all tax parcels, excluding streets and alleys, within the proposed conservation district boundary.

After the study, the district would go up for a vote, and if 2/3 of property owners approve, it would take effect. Overall, the population of Minneapolis is about 50% renters, 50% home owners. It should go without saying that as a group, home owners are older, whiter, and wealthier than renters. Right off the bat, this should be troubling.

arnstein-rungs-of-participation

Arstein’s famous 1961 “ladder of citizen participation.”

On top of that, renters are already extremely under-represented in existing public engagement processes. For example, homeowners make up 90% of the seats on public commissions. Neighborhood groups already have a poor track record with renter participation. There are lots of reasons for this — renters are more likely to work long hours, move more frequently, have language or cultural barriers, and have less obvious financial stakes in urban planning decisions — but including renters’ voices can be done with effort.

(At the same time, over the years I’ve heard stories from renters, students, and people of color about how difficult it can be to participate in neighborhood group processes. I’ve even heard accusations of intentionally excluding certain groups.)

City planning is extremely complicated when it comes to citizen engagement. It’s very tricky and can be done well or poorly. At best, creating a new level of regulation that automatically excludes half the city exacerbates an already existing problem. At worst, it’s undemocratic and immoral.

“Visual Character” as Code

couchporch2

Years ago, CM Hofstede tried to ban couches on porches. At the time, CM Gordon opposed it, citing “economic justice and laws targeting poor people.

The proposed regulation declares its purpose as protecting the visual character of an area. Here’s what it says, at length [emphasis mine]:

599.710. Purpose. This article is established to perpetuate and proliferate the visual character evident in an area’s notable architecture, development pattern, scale, or landscape design by regulating changes to those attributes and adopted design guidelines for property within a defined area. As part of the city’s comprehensive program of historic preservation, it is the intent of this ordinance to promote the use and conservation of notable properties for the education, inspiration, pleasure, and enrichment of the citizens of this city. Conservation districts are designed to not only maintain but also expand the roster of buildings, structures, sites, and objects that contribute to the visual character of the district. The value of existing and proposed buildings in conservation districts is measured by the extent to which they embody the conservation district’s notable visual character.

To me, the concept of visual character seems impossibly vague. Are we talking about paint colors? Bricks vs. stucco? Front yard garden maintenance? Cornice complexity? Window width? Couches on porches?

Terms like “visual character” or “quality of life” are never neutral, and are deeply rooted in cultural and generational preferences. To some people graffiti is beautiful; others find it horrifying. In some cultures, front yards are a place to have sidewalk barbecues or bathtub shrines; others prefer to use front yards as tranquil flower gardens. Some people like quiet neighborhoods, others want a thriving restaurant scene. To some, bike lanes are an unsightly scourge; others love them…

These kinds of differences — what you might call the practices of everyday life — can be highly contested. Different practices of everyday life lead to frustration, anger, and people moving out of the city. Clearly we should have some rules about them, but these differences can also make cities exciting, dynamic, and interesting places to live. Do we really want to begin policing “visual character”?

rensaeller-NY-shrine-washer

Visual character in upstate New York. Note: bathtub madonna and washing machine.

The Racist History of Homeowners Associations

redlining map phila

A redlining map of Philadlephia; Mpls had one just like it.

The more I think about this proposal, the more it reminds me of the deeply troubling history of home ownership in US cities. Throughout the 20th century, homeowners associations have consistently attempted to regulate who could live in different neighborhoods. Until the 40s, this was done through racist deed restrictions written into mortgages.*

After that was declared illegal, the practices of homeowners associations became more subtle. Reading Evan McKenzie’s excellent book on the subject, Privatopia: Homeowners Associations and the Rise of Residential Private Government blows your hair back. In it, he writes [emphasis mine]:

In 1947, the FHA was still promoting use of what it called “protective covenants” to guard against “inharmonious land uses.” … Explicit references to race restrictive covenants had by then been dropped after protest, but the agency carefully advocated covenants that would “maintain neighborhood character and values”.

To me, its impossible to look at the conservation district proposal without thinking of this troubling history. “Neighborhood character” has been used as a code for race and class differences for generations in US cities. Home owners and the real estate community have a lot to answer for. If Minneapolis is serious about ending inequality (as everyone seems to keep saying), a new level of regulation exclusively peopled by home owners and concerned with “visual character” is a huge step in the wrong direction.

Who or What Are We Conserving Here?

mpls double deuce

Personally, I’d “conserve” dive bars, downtown alleys & 22nd Ave. Station.

There are other nits to pick. The language isn’t specific about scope or time frame or process for reversing decisions. Actually, to be honest, it’s not specific about much at all.

Here’s a thought experiment. Think of the ugliest building in the city. (Right now I’m picturing the  Lake Street K-Mart.) Could you, in theory, create a “conservation district” focused on its “visual character”?

Sure you could. If you can get 1/3 of the property owners on your block to agree about it, then (voila!) you’re studying the new “Lake/Nicollet Surface Parking Conservation District.”

Or how about a strip club conservation district centered around the double-deuce? Even haters must admit it’s chock full of “visual character.”

Our system of city planning already includes lots of layers: local and city-wide elected officials, quasi-democratic neighborhood groups (official and unofficial), block clubs, appointed commissions, and public hearings galore. Sometimes the outcome of this process isn’t what you might like.

I’m sure that the intentions of many of the people pushing this proposal are honest and good.  But given our sustainability and density goals, our historic problem with engagement outreach, and our verbal commitments to creating a more just society, this conservation district plan is a terrible idea. It’s hard to believe anyone is taking it seriously.

 

Update: Apparently the Saint Paul Heritage Preservation Commission is just tonight considering an “Urban Renewal Historic District” that would conserve the skyway-centric 50s – 60s downtown buildings, such as the Macy’s and Pioneer Press buildings. All of these buildings have unwalkable street-level blank walls along their sidewalks…  See Fred Melo’s twitter for some examples.

 

* Through the FHA, the federal government actively encouraged this kind of exclusive language. The role of the government in creating a racist and unequal social landscape is a story too little told. Differences in access to home mortgages, housing equity, quality schools, and decent housing is one of the huge underlying reasons for the current “achievement gap.”

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46 Responses to Minneapolis Conservation Districts are a Terrible Idea

  1. Michael Roden
    Michael Roden January 30, 2014 at 3:03 pm #

    Really great post – it’s always the innocuous seeming things that do the most damage.

  2. David Baur January 30, 2014 at 3:10 pm #

    You know what they say about good intentions…my first reaction to this before I finished the post was “sounds almost like an ad-hoc homeowner’s association whenever someone wants one.” There seems like a lot of danger in this to me, but the thing that jumped out is it feels a bit like a wolf in sheep’s clothing. For those who already largely hold power in neighborhood decision-making, it can appeal to a misguided sense of fairness – fairness that benefits them, mostly – while allowing them to make the case that it allows everyone to be “reasonable” in how we make decisions. Nobody is in favor of “destroying” visual character per se, but we often debate and disagree about what that means. When you rightly ask “who or what are we preserving,” I think it shows this is a solution in search of a problem.

  3. Jeff Klein January 30, 2014 at 3:25 pm #

    In his column, Brauer (and I’m a big fan in general) suggests that because household size has shrunk, we would need to add many units of housing to increase our population to 500,000. But it’s not true that a single-family home will always only house one traditional family. For one thing, the millenial generation — and this is anecdotal — is a lot more likely to consider a group a close friends “family”. I’ve seen, and I think we’ll see more, of a couple of young people owning a house, and living in it, but renting out a room or two to help cover the mortgage (it would be nice to see a loosening of unrelated occupant laws, which are both racist and a burden on young homeowners). Additionally, there’s a lot of old hulking houses built for 9-member nuclear families that can still be converted to duplexes.

    • David Brauer February 2, 2014 at 8:42 am #

      Jeff – you make a great point about the unrelated-people limit. Can see it changing, though some neighborhoods (Dinkytown-area) would bitterly oppose this, city official say.

      As for house-sharing, the demographers I spoke with at the city and Met Council believe Minneapolis actually has a SHORTAGE of housing for bigger families going forward, and in the city’s case, is considering remodeling/expansion-encouragement programs.

      Anyway, while it’s possible you are right and we won’t need additional structures, I think the demographer betting is that a lot of those rent-a-room homes will actually be filled by single families, hopefully who stay for a better school system.

      One thing I found out after the article ran is that the city has 12,000 vacant units (homes, apts, town homes, etc.). Should those all be occupied, you could cut structure-growth estimates by a quarter. It would still be historically break-neck.

      On the flip, housing sizes could continue to shrink, if smaller apartments/condos and an aging of the population tip the market that way.

  4. Morgan January 30, 2014 at 6:31 pm #

    Great Article Bill,

    Coming for Washington, DC, which has a lot of historic districts, I tend to view these districts a little more positively. The design review required by historic districts really helped the urban design of the city. The quality of the architecture in these districts is so much better than the developments that are not located in historic districts. Many of the people that I worked with in DC felt that the whole city should be a historic district. I also think that this is true of Minneapolis, for example, the Midtown Greenway Coalition has worked with developers to improve the design of the new buildings that are going up along the Greenway. They are much better than they otherwise would be.

    With regards to “Visual Character as Code”, historic district regulation is only sparked by the application for a building permit. If a permit is applied for in an historic district then it is referred for approval by regulatory affairs. Paint, vegetation, and porch furniture does not require a building permit and therefore would not be regulated by the conservation district. These conservation districts could work differently but that is the general process.But I agree that the legislature should be clearer in this regard.

    The conservation process should also not affect zoning. Height and F.A.R. are a matter of right if currently zoned and the variance process should not change.

    That said, the engagement process is awful. Only allowing owners to vote should not be legal. Shouldn’t an appointed commission of experts judge the merit of an application like a historic district? I think that would be the best way forward.

    This is an interesting debate for our city. Thanks for this article!

    • Bill Lindeke
      Bill Lindeke January 30, 2014 at 7:14 pm #

      Great points. Thanks for clarifying what we’re talking about.

      It’s obvious that I’m pretty suspicious of this kind of proposal. Is the problem that…

      1) new architecture is not good enough?
      2) we’re losing older buildings too quickly? (e.g. the ones torn down in Dinkytown)
      3) we’re building too much density?

      We need to tailor any solution precisely to what the problem is. Otherwise, the potential downsides of this kind of approach outweigh any good that might come from it IMO.

  5. Janne Flisrand
    Janne January 30, 2014 at 9:31 pm #

    I’m not so sure what to make of this proposal.

    I get how this can look like NIMBYism or a code for race or anti-density. On the other hand, this is coming out of the Prospect Park neighborhood, which has been embracing increased density for years, and is working on a shared parking district so that the businesses can be released from parking minimums — that interpretation doesn’t quite ring true. Plus, CM Gordon has been the biggest champion for urbanism on the Mpls Council (at least until a few weeks ago, when he may have gotten some competition).

    I haven’t read the draft language, although I understand it includes mechanisms that in essence say, “If your problem is the zoning, then fix the zoning and don’t come here.” And, of course, intent of the drafters and how a policy actually gets used over time.

    Seeing where this has come from, I don’t buy the Roper framing of “NIMBY vs. urbanist.” I suppose I should do some more homework to understand it for real, eh?

    • Spencer January 31, 2014 at 7:54 am #

      “this is coming out of the Prospect Park neighborhood, which has been embracing increased density for years”

      To be fair, they’ve been “embracing density” in former industrial areas and near the U, both of which are on the periphery of the neighborhood.

    • Evan Roberts
      Evan January 31, 2014 at 11:12 am #

      There’s a diversity of opinion in Prospect Park about the new developments being proposed north of University. There’s a group that’s championing it, others that will tolerate the traffic to have the density to get a grocery store, and others that hate it because “parking, traffic, students!”

      It’s fair to say that the conservation district idea has been pushed hardest by people in the neighborhood who are not champions of new development …

      • Janne February 2, 2014 at 5:10 pm #

        Of course there’s a diversity of opinion. That’s good. I also think that the periphery of the Prospect Park neighborhood is where most streets.mn readers and writers would say density should go — that’s where the transit is, that’s where the access to useful stuff is, and that’s where the surface parking lots are. If I were moving, that’s where I’d want to live, too — steps from the light rail stop. Sounds to me like PP residents (overall) recognize that they can’t stop the density coming their way, and they’re trying to figure out how to steer, shape, and balance it.

  6. Janne Flisrand
    Janne January 30, 2014 at 9:32 pm #

    Also – in some ways, this sounds a lot like form-based zoning. Can we get some thoughts from Joe Urban?

    • Alex Cecchini
      Alex Cecchini January 31, 2014 at 12:04 am #

      Much of the city we love was built before zoning existed as we know it today. If what people want to preserve is a form that is pleasing, we’ve got all sorts of examples of SFH, apartments, commercial buildings, and even many mid-rise buildings downtown (though many destroyed) that would fit into a transect-based form code. However, this would and should allow neighborhoods to intensify and grow over time. People who want to preserve districts often forget that the people/businesses who built what they like were also capitalists who destroyed structures to build their own. Think how many churns of development downtown saw from 1860 to 1920. Even the Dinkytown structures we know and love replaced many detached homes (there is one left standing on the Burrito Loco block).

      To me, this proposal seems to give a lot of weight to existing residents’ personal opinion as a means to block (or move to a different location) development, and as is typical doesn’t give voice to the forgotten members affected (namely, the people who would live or work in new development but don’t technically exist yet to state their case).

      I’ll also point out that throughout Minneapolis’ history, new buildings and architectural styles were largely derided by residents and other architects. Larry Millett’s Lost Twin Cities highlights many such examples. What architectural treasures that folks 50 years from now might love are we missing out on?

      • Morgan January 31, 2014 at 1:03 am #

        Yeah, but vernacular architecture does not exist anymore. It still did in the previous churns that you are referencing. I believe that vernacular architecture is worth preserving and new development should be compatible with it. It makes for a much better urban environment.

        • Spencer January 31, 2014 at 7:55 am #

          Do you have a compelling argument as to why your personal preference should be enforced by law?

          • Morgan January 31, 2014 at 8:20 am #

            Who me? I am not a super proponent of the conservation district per say, and I am surprised by the proposal as well, but having lived in a city that had substantial design review in many historic districts I think that some design review, if that is what conservation districts are, could have merit.

            First, vernacular housing stock can never come back if it is lost because it no longer exists. Building does not necessarily use local architects, design has been made more commoditized by technology, and local materials are no longer used. Vernacular architecture is truly scare and therefore should be preserved. New development should add and not subtract from the visual appeal of vernacular architecture.

            Second, urban design, primarily from a previous era before the automobile, is any cities primary advantage in the housing market compared to the suburbs. It’s not price, it’s not proximity to high paying private sector employers, it’s not government services, and it’s not quality – in the sense of less required home maintenance. The fabric of the city itself is the city’s primary asset in competition for residents. Like any asset it must be maintained and invested in. Conservation districts could be a way to do that.

            • Adam Miller
              Adam January 31, 2014 at 10:19 am #

              I’m confused. Pretty much every DC row house has the exact same design (and differences are usually from much later renovations).

              • Morgan January 31, 2014 at 10:31 am #

                Confused? There are many row house designs in Washington DC: Federal and Georgian on Capital Hill, Victorian in Dupont, Shaw, Columbia Heights, and more recent Wardman’s in Petworth, Bloomingdale, etc. There is also significant variation within those historic styles.

                But together, DC still has a similar enough housing stock to differentiate it from other cities. The setbacks, lot occupancy, height to width ratios, and materials make them more similar to each other than to a brownstone in Brooklyn, a row house in Baltimore, or a triplex in Montreal. That is vernacular architecture.

                • Bill Lindeke
                  Bill Lindeke January 31, 2014 at 11:01 am #

                  I appreciate you carrying water for this Morgan. There IS another side to the argument, and I’ve invited Robin Garwood (Cam Gordon’s council aide and a friend) to post a rebuttal on streets.mn explaining why he believes this is a good idea. He has a lot of similar arguments to Morgan…

                  The point of my piece was to raise three areas of historical context that are important for considering a policy like this…

                  1) renters are excluded from most city decision making
                  2) “visual resources” is a very subjective concept
                  3) home owners associations have a poor track record

                  In fact, this article isn’t much about the proposal at all, but instead about some issues we should always consider when making decisions about city planning. Ignoring these issues of equity and cultural difference is naive, at best.

                  • Morgan January 31, 2014 at 11:16 am #

                    Yes, your article is great. I love the history that you bring to your work.

                    Not engaging renters is a huge problem and I agree with Alex about the equal protection lawsuit.

                • Adam Miller
                  Adam February 3, 2014 at 11:12 am #

                  The differences you’re pointing to are limited primarily to exterior decorations. The interior layouts tend to vary only by room size. Those Federal, Georgian and Victorian row houses almost literally all have exactly the same room layout.

                  • Morgan February 3, 2014 at 11:14 am #

                    Well, we are talking about urban design.

      • Monte Castleman
        Monte Castleman February 1, 2014 at 9:02 am #

        I do think that architecture goes certain waves of about a generation.
        For the first generation after it’s built it’s seen as nice and new and cool and shiny.
        The generation after thinks (phase 2) of it as ho-hum and utilitarian, it may not be flashy, but no sense in tearing down perfectly good buildings
        The 3rd generation hates it and tries to tear down as much of it as possible in favor of the current style, but there is a minority voice arguing for preservation.
        The 4th generation is nostalgic and laments the destruction of the third.

        All the cool old building that got lost in the Gateway project were the tail end of the third phase at the time, and now that’s in the 4th phase. RIght now the postwar modernism is in the third phase, and a lot of prime examples have been lost already. Just in this area Southdale has been remodeled so much the interior is almost unrecognizable, NIcollet Mall has been redone; Peavey Plaza was a close call. Urbanists may hate the Macy’s building for not having cute coffee shops facing the street, but it is a prime example of modernism (and by the same architect as Southdale), so the people wanting to save it and the other Capital Centre buildings aren’t totally nuts (and the people that wanted to save the Gateway buildings were, I believe, viewed as kind of anti-progress nuts at the time too.) Not to say we can’t tear it down if there’s a good reason, but it’s time that the phase 3 generation start realizing what they’re doing and save some of the better examples for later generations.

  7. Spencer January 31, 2014 at 7:51 am #

    Do you have a compelling argument as to why your personal preference should be enforced by law?

  8. Adam Miller
    Adam January 31, 2014 at 10:13 am #

    Ugh. This is a terrible idea.

    • Doug Trumm
      Doug Trumm January 31, 2014 at 11:08 am #

      Excellent article, Bill. I like the connection you made to the couch on porch ordinance. This does seem like another law leaving poor residents in the lurch. I generally like CM Gordon, but that doesn’t mean this law should skate by on his reputation alone. If minorities, students and the poor (all more likely to rent than own) already feel shut out of neighborhood associations, why would we create another entity that explicitly shut renters out of the process. Perhaps more effective and engaging neighborhood associations and history preservation groups would be a better solution than a whole another layer of bureaucracy. Speaking of which, I think neighborhoods like Prospect Park have extremely engaged neighborhood associations and I’m not sure they need the extra help fighting whatever this law is fighting.

  9. Alex January 31, 2014 at 10:56 am #

    I would consider a lawsuit under equal protection grounds if all residents, not just homeowners, are not given the power of consent over establishment of a district.

    But besides that one fatal flaw, I think the ordinance is pretty good. There is a value, both monetary and aesthetic, in harmonious streetscapes, just as there is value in inharmonious ones. The key, as always, is balance. So in addition to the emendation above, I would suggest also including a maximum contiguous area in the ordinance, and possibly also a spacing requirement. I would suggest that conservation districts should include no more than 8 block faces, so that if necessary something like the noteworthy early foursquares strung along Park Ave between Lake and 34th could be included, for example, but that you couldn’t use it to mandate single-family homes within an entire neighborhood. A half-mile spacing requirement between districts would similarly guard against the possibility of de facto homeowners’ associations.

    There is, however, a significant review process written into the ordinance that I think would catch any attempt to do that. Four bodies must approve of every proposed district, and in their review will provide substantial opportunities for public input.

  10. Evan Roberts
    Evan January 31, 2014 at 11:31 am #

    Writing as an historian who dabbles in urban history and appreciates the old buildings, I find the energy for this idea well-intentioned but fighting the wrong battles and opponents.

    The modern historic preservation movement got its start in opposing urban renewal in the 1960s and after. In the US (and elsewhere) the most significant destruction of historic buildings came in government directed road building and urban “renewal” projects.

    It’s telling if you go to Australia/NZ/Canadian cities of a similar age that the freeway building happened, but not the urban “renewal” (there was some, but limited). The destruction to urban fabric was much smaller.

    People [rightly] rallied against that. What we have now is not mass government-directed razing of buildings achieved in part by eminent domain, but private companies selectively deciding that existing structures are not economic. That is, there is no widespread threat to significant historic buildings. To be sure, there are individual buildings that might be historically significant but not economic for a private entity to restore. There are no proposals for the government to condemn hundreds of homes and build freeways in the core cities. But there are also no private companies buying up entire streets of single family homes to replace with apartment buildings. The existing zoning code makes it very hard to do that anyway.

    In a lot of places historic homes are protected by their very value on the open market. It would be ludicrously expensive for someone to buy up nice homes in Prospect Park or similar areas and replace them with slightly higher density R1 or R2 zoned houses. There’s a market value to older structures and architecture particularly in housing because people like them.

    So I just don’t see the threat to historic buildings that the proponents of this measure do (but I can kinda understand where that perception is coming from). And that’s without even getting into the terribly anti-democratic process of restricting voting to property-owners, and the restriction on property rights that 2/3 of your neighbors can vote to deny you the ability to modify your own property.

    • Bill Lindeke
      Bill Lindeke January 31, 2014 at 11:42 am #

      Evan, might this be a bit naive? Buying up blocks of homes through purchase agreements is exactly what developers do. I can think of a few examples…

      I have a lot of mixed feelings about historic preservation as practiced today. See for example the meeting last night to save the Saint Paul Macy’s. (referenced above) Really? There’s an interesting debate about historic preservation and modernism, but I don’t think this unwalkable building should be in that conversation.

      (But that’s another topic.) What we’re talking about here isn’t historic preservation per se, but more of an attempt at creating broad architectural design regulations. If that’s the case, why can’t we use form-based codes or zoning reform to achieve the same goals?

      (To be frank, I’m not sure *what* we’re really talking about with this issue…)

    • Jeff Skrenes February 14, 2014 at 8:57 pm #

      Evan, if you honestly think there is no widespread threat to historic buildings, I will gladly take you on a tour of city-owned vacant structures in north Minneapolis.

  11. Evan Roberts
    Evan January 31, 2014 at 1:29 pm #

    Bill, thanks for pushing me to clarify my argument. Yes, developers do buy up some properties, but the scope of this is limited
    i) compared to past destruction of historic buildings, and
    ii) to buildings that are of marginal economic value today.

    In the neighborhoods that are pushing this idea people are already investing in maintaining historic homes, and pushing their value beyond what is worth pulling down.

    I’m not claiming that “the market” will save all historic buildings, but I will argue that it’s saving some.

  12. David Levinson
    David Levinson February 1, 2014 at 7:56 am #

    If the people of Prospect Park, or elsewhere, want to preserve urban form on someone else’s property, they should buy that property, and establish the future preservation in deed or covenant or easement, or whatever other means is appropriate, and then dispose of the property (to get almost the same amount of money back, presumably less because the property is not worth as much any more, but perhaps more if the collective conservancy does add value to the neighborhood) to preserve it, so the new buyer knows what they are getting. This can also be done via direct negotiation with the owners.

    This proposal is basically an attempt to confiscate part of their neighbor’s bundle of rights through the force of law (the majesty of the state, which let us not forget has a monopoly on the use of force), without compensation.

    Aesthetically, I more or less like the urban form in PP. I dislike the regulatory hoops we will have to go through to modify our property (as per the previous trial HCD), and manner in which these after-the-fact changes to rights are proposed to be imposed. Set up a Historic Property Conservancy to buy the development rights from the properties you want to preserve.

    • Morgan February 1, 2014 at 9:46 am #

      Well, I don’t think that a Conservancy for a district the size of a Minneapolis neighborhood would ever happen because it would be very hard to finance. Most conservancies are generally for one specific property that has a regional (national or international) history or appeal, making the market for philanthropic financing much larger.

      Even if such an organization could be financed it would be heavily reliant on a very small number of wealthy donors like most nonprofits are. It would probably have even less resident and citizen accountability than a conservation district voted on by homeowners and approved by elected officials.

      The problem that I have with this “they should buy the properties” argument is that the market for votes is a legitimate market in a democracy. Elections, like transactions, foster accountability, efficiency, and value. The markets for customers and financing are not the only two markets to be considered as mechanisms for efficiently meeting people’s wants and needs.

      • Alex Cecchini
        Alex Cecchini February 2, 2014 at 2:23 pm #

        True, but a market of votes is extremely complex, even at a local level How may issues factor into a person’s vote for a particular candidate? Obviously the range grows with each higher level of government, but how many people who voted for a council member agreed with every take on issues? Zeroing in on historic preservation, a body of elected officials may have completely complex reasons for taking certain stances on any given district decision. Nuanced decisions on height, window treatments, street presence, materials used, etc all factor in. This is why I don’t think the voter argument holds true, especially when many of the bodies involved in decision-making aren’t even elected (and this is coming from someone who has never criticized bodies like the Met Council, EPA, or anything else for being unelected).

        Add in the fact that voters represent the status quo – current residents, social values, trends and preferences for architecture/style. But it also leaves out a valuable constituency – the group of people who don’t live in Minneapolis, specifically high-value places likely to be considered for conservation districts (areas near transit lines, the lakes, or Uptown, for example) but would like to.

        I’m highly skeptical that our building/housing stock and districts are 1) highly unique relative to other areas of the country, and 2) so valuable that more than a select few shining examples of styles are worth preserving. On #2, how does our city at large benefit from our (admittedly vast and mostly untouched) single family neighborhoods or commercial structures? Do we have a booming tourism industry reliant on these structures? Are they the reason people move to our region/city compared to natural resources, jobs, schools, bike infrastructure, and progressive attitudes? I’m just not really sure what this does aside from making public the private benefits a neighborhood perceives they’ll receive by retaining a built form. And certainly excluding renters from the process seems terrible.

        • Morgan February 3, 2014 at 9:45 am #

          Excellent, thoughtful response Alex.

          First, I would say that there are a lot of products that are sold as a package of features, housing for sure (location, size, services, immediate cash investment) and automobiles (performance, comfort, reliability, fuel efficiency). I don’t think that the market for political representation is very different. With regards to the status quo, the future is unknown so it is always discounted. Net Present Value.

          With regards to the Minneapolis building stock, I have had conversations with young people recently (under 35) that have stated that they believe that Minneapolis offers the closest thing to what a “quintessential” neighborhood experience is like. These are people that have lived in Washington, DC, California, and Michigan. It’s anecdotal but I am sure that that perception is shared by others. The built environment must be one reason why Minneapolis and St. Paul score so highly for neighborhood quality in national surveys.

          And we are working on urban tourism! We want more of it! But it will require investment for sure.

          • Alex Cecchini
            Alex Cecchini February 3, 2014 at 10:39 am #

            I’ve no doubt that the ability to buy a SFH ona n 1/8th are lot in many close-in Mpls neightborhoods is a powerful draw for people. Indeed, small neighborhood units composed of well-designed (read: fronting street/sidewalk well, garages tucked to alleys) detached structures, near attached/multifamily structures which are nearer to commercial/mixed-use units/nodes is ideal (I say this from a transit/biking/walking perspective, multitude of housing options perspective, and many others).

            However, we shouldn’t mandate that this be the ideal form when there are clearly consequences such as high housing prices and the inability to continue to develop high-ridership transit lines as close to the core of downtown as possible. Readers here are well-aware of the environmental and job access issues that arise as a result of such limiting zoning and review processes.

            To Janne’s point below, I’m not sure that ensuring family-friendly places to live is the reason for targeting a specific style of development/construction. Many 20-something renters live in divided-up Victorian homes in the Wedge, while families also live in condo units or high-rises. The city should be in the business of ensuring public spaces and services do work for everyone – adequate park space with amenities for varieties of demographics, equitable (time-wise) transportation options, good schools, etc. Let the market provide housing options to families that allow them to trade off space (SFH+yard vs perhaps row houses or low-rise condo units) vs proximity. Since family sizes across the country have been dwindling for decades, the space issue may not be as big a deal anyway.

            Work with nearby cities to promote change in development laws/regs and public investments to expand the “neighborhood feel” that Minneapolis offers. Pick the structures within the city limits truly worth saving or preserving on architectural or historic merit, take extensive photos, videos, written accounts, etc of the rest to ensure history isn’t lost but documented. If short-term preservation of character is a goal, Mpls should fast-track initiatives to allow more ADUs (laneway houses, basement apartments, etc) to keep the look of the neighborhood for another generation or so while adding housing options and density.

            Finally, urban tourism is great, but shouldn’t be a goal unto itself, and certainly not an industry the city should pick as a winner (IMHO, obviously). Again, the city should allow this to happen by allowing/promoting small ADUs to be used as VRBO/Airbnb type places.

      • David Levinson
        David February 2, 2014 at 2:35 pm #

        Democracy is not a market. (And the US is not a democracy in any case, at best we are a republic). The reason we have a constitution is to prevent the majority imposing its will on the minority. If the district adds value (either real or perceived), pony up the money and buy the rights. The city can do this, the neighbors can do this, a benefactor can do this. If it is real value, a bank will finance it. If not, use your democracy to tax the general populous to compensate the peoples whose rights you are taking. Don’t just seize it by force of law.

        • Janne February 2, 2014 at 5:06 pm #

          Alex, I’m not totally convinced that the voters — while they may represent the status quo — are voting for the status quo. The recent city electons certainly signaled a major change in how voters are thiking about the future of our city. And they’re asking for more density and more urbanist approaches.

          That’s part of why I trust the elected officials to responsibly implement a policy like this — it’s their job to 1) respect zoning (and tell neighborhoods that if they don’t like the zoning, to fix that rather than try to work around it with one of these conservation district thingies), and 2) think about the big picture, including encouraging development and increased density while maintaining enough family-friendly housing that families will want to live here.

          I don’t claim to fully understand the benefits of this proposal. I also think there’s a knee-jerk response by urbanists to this when we don’t have a full understanding of the process for related policies restricting property values (i.e. BIDs) or how approval would be evaluated by the committees who would have to review and approve it.

          I’m withholding an opinion until I understand it, and we haven’t yet seen what the pro-conservation-district argument is.

        • Morgan February 3, 2014 at 9:55 am #

          While I might not be totally up to speed on the technical specifications of what constitutes a “market”, in its simplest form a market is just where parties engage in exchange. A voter exchanges his or her vote for political representation. The “market for votes” is frequently referenced in the political science and policy literature.

          Design review is certainly constitutional because it exists in a lot of jurisdictions. The proposed conservation districts might not be the correct application of constitutional design review though. I am not sure about that.

          And we live in a mixed economic system because we have found that both property rights, consumer and financial markets MIXED with democracy and government regulation is the best way to satisfy societies complex needs.

      • Adam Miller
        Adam February 3, 2014 at 11:17 am #

        These are all arguments for why it should be difficult to take the bits of property rights the proposal is meant to take.

        And really, “it’s cheaper to use the ballot box to take my neighbor’s property than to buy it” is a really, really bad argument. Or should be anyway.

        • Morgan February 3, 2014 at 12:09 pm #

          The debate is whether urban design is good for society or not. The whole entire reason why government exists is that consumer and financial markets have limits with regards to supplying what is best for society.

          Nobody is taking property.

          • Alex Cecchini
            Alex Cecchini February 3, 2014 at 12:27 pm #

            If good urban design is the goal, a form-based code should be implemented. This seems to be targeting specific architectural styles and limiting good urban design from continuing natural evolution as areas grow and become more desirable, ie intensifying land-use.

            • Morgan February 3, 2014 at 1:08 pm #

              You could be right. I know very little about form-based zoning.

              • Bill Lindeke
                Bill Lindeke February 3, 2014 at 2:53 pm #

                Someday, I’m going to do a podcast with Sam all about form based codes / zoning, to really get to the bottom of the idea.

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Sunday Summary | streets.mn - February 4, 2014

    […] Minneapolis Conservation Districts are a Terrible Idea according to Bill Lindeke. The districts, envisioned as “something more flexible than a historic district…but with more clout than a small area plan” have some clear flaws including being controlled by property owners, rest on highly subjective visual character criteria, and implicitly aim at conserving “good stuff” as defined by the powerful vested interests. Good back and forth in the comments about conservation, power, NIMBY-ism, and history, too. […]

  2. Sunday Summary | streets.mn - February 9, 2014

    […] Minneapolis Conservation Districts are a Terrible Idea was followed by Conservation districts can be a tool for Smart Growth by Robin Garwood (who helped […]

  3. Conservation Districts can be a Tool for Smart Growth | streets.mn - February 19, 2014

    […] A previous article on this topic compared conservation districts with redlining.  That’s essentially an argument of bad faith.  Redlining was a very purposeful, thought-out attempt to keep certain people out of certain neighborhoods.  I was part of the Technical Advisory Team that crafted this ordinance, and I can say with confidence that no one was motivated by a desire to keep “those people” out of certain areas. […]

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