The conservation conversation hasn’t gotten off to a good start. As one of the people who has worked to craft the proposed conservation district ordinance, here’s my take.
The wrong frames
“Urbanist vs. NIMBY” and “high density vs. low density” are the wrong frames for this discussion, just as “bicyclists vs. firefighters” was the wrong frame for the discussion about the City hiring a bicycle and pedestrian coordinator. (Both of these frames originally came from the Star Tribune, incidentally.)
Here’s one way to tell that the frame is wrong: many of the people who most strongly support the conservation district concept are also very strong supporters of smart growth. I work for Council Member Cam Gordon, who authored the proposed conservation district ordinance. I support additional density in Minneapolis for many reasons, but the most important to me is that growth in the urban core, on transit lines and high-quality bikeways, will help reduce the number of single-occupant auto trips, which will in turn fight climate change.
And it’s not just Cam and me: the conservation district idea was first raised by the Prospect Park neighborhood in Ward 2. Over the past few years, Prospect Park has supported major housing (WaHu, U Flats, M Flats, etc.) and commercial (Surly!) developments in their area. They have developed a proactive plan for adding thousands of dwelling units and tens of thousands of square feet of commercial space to their neighborhood, all designed to be walkable, bikeable, and transit-accessible. These folks aren’t NIMBYs: they’re out there asking for growth in their backyards. And when you look at conservation districts in other cities, you find that they are being used for a host of reasons that have nothing to do with being anti-density. One of the articles we turned to for information, Protecting Older Neighborhoods Through Conservation District Programs by Rebecca Lubens and Julia Miller, lists “mansionization, the proliferation of vacant parcels and parking lots, disinvestment, or commercial encroachment” as the concerns conservation districts are being used to address. The idea simply isn’t to try to block density.
Are some things worth keeping?
I think some places in our city are special enough that we should work to preserve what makes them great.
This is what drove the City to create a process to create historic districts decades ago. This wasn’t without controversy. Milwaukee Avenue is a great example. Today, it’s clearly a huge success: a walkable, car-free “greenway” street lined by beautiful, historic housing much denser than the zoning code would allow. But when the neighborhood fought to save Milwaukee Ave, Planning Commissioners referred to the area as “historic blight” while advocating for it all to be torn down and replaced by the sort of nondescript brick-box apartment buildings you can find on the west side of 22nd Ave S.
This is where some “new urbanist” arguments start to echo the worst of the “old urbanist” approach that reached its height in urban renewal. It’s ironic, of course, because urban renewal not only destroyed a lot of historic character, but a heck of a lot of density. Useful buildings were replaced by freeways and parking lots. The wrecking ball squad was wrong about Milwaukee Avenue and the Metropolitan building – what might they be wrong about today?It’s important to note that some of the most successful conservation districts in the country are all about protecting good urban design. Take Queen Village, Philadelphia: one of the major purposes of this district is to prevent people from building street-facing garages that degrade the pedestrian environment.
How are Historic Districts and Conservation Districts different?
Historic districts and conservation districts are fundamentally similar. Both involve property owners surrendering some of their property rights for the collective purpose of preserving what works in an area. That said, there are two main differences. First, where an historic district seeks to preserve the actual physical stuff (those particular windows, for instance) a conservation district will help new development proliferate the same character as the existing built environment (put in new windows like those). Second, where historic district guidelines are necessarily rather stringent, conservation district guidelines will be much more flexible to the needs of the particular district: is the district defined by Victorian architecture? Then the guidelines should allow changes that fit with that Victorian character. The hope is that this will provide a middle ground for people who might want to preserve some of the character of a significant area, but who aren’t willing to let the City tell them they can’t replace their windows.
Given all of that, it seems to me that people who believe that the conservation district concept is a terrible, anti-growth policy tantamount to redlining should really be agitating for the repeal of the existing historic district ordinance. It’s the same basic question, answered in a more flexible way.
There seem to be some unfounded fears about the conservation district ordinance:
It’s going to be used on every block in Minneapolis! No, it’s not. The ordinance requires that “the majority of properties embody notable attributes common to the district, including architectural styles, development patterns, scale, or landscape designs.”
It’s just an end-run around zoning, and will be used to prevent development that the zoning code allows! No, it won’t. The draft ordinance states this explicitly: “design guidelines shall not be adopted or applied so as to prohibit uses allowed by the zoning code.” And before creating a new conservation district, the Planning Commission is directed by the draft ordinance to consider “the relationship of the proposed conservation district to the city’s comprehensive plan” and “the consistency of the proposed conservation district with applicable development plans or development objectives adopted by the city council.” There may be people out there who support the conservation district concept because they think it’s a tool they can use to fight density, but they’re wrong too.
This is just a backdoor way to create moratoria on development! No, it isn’t. The ordinance does not create an automatic moratorium. Yes, a Council Member could use one to try to start a moratorium, but that requires a majority of the Council – and the Council has shot down moratoria in the last few years. Again, if folks have a problem with this, they should really have a problem with the existing historic district ordinance, which allows a single Council Member to start a designation process (with no buy-in from anyone), which triggers interim historic protections.
It’ll be too easy to create conservation districts! This one is funny, because many pro-conservation-district folks are complaining that it’ll be too hard. Read the application requirements: in addition to the buy-in of 1/3 of the property owners, they’ll have to do a property-by-property inventory (including a photo of each), and “a statement addressing why a zoning amendment or historic district designation would not be as appropriate as the establishment of a conservation district.”
Why Isn’t Zoning Enough?
Zoning, especially form-based zoning, should be a set of rules that are applicable citywide. Conservation districts are by their nature – just like historic districts – driven by the particular character and significance of a specific area. It might make perfect sense in a conservation district centered in an area notable for its ramblers to require development to conform to certain rambler-esque design features; it definitely doesn’t make sense to do that same thing across the city.
One interesting example of this is the problem of teardowns and McMansions in wealthier parts of Minneapolis. Despite at least one try by then-Council Member Betsy Hodges to rein in “mansionization,” the problem continues. Are McMansions good urban design? Might it be worth preserving some smaller, more affordable housing stock?
And again, in order to get in the door, advocates for a particular conservation district will have to answer this question for their context. It’s required.
Why Don’t Renters Get a Vote?
A conservation district is essentially a group of property owners coming together to agree that they will place constraints on their property rights to conserve some valuable and significant aspect of their area’s character. In this way, it’s similar to other processes like special service districts and special assessments.
Let’s look at special service districts. That’s where property owners agree to put a special additional levy on their property taxes and use the revenue to help their business district prosper. That process is initiated by 25% of commercial property owners, and can be blocked by 25% of commercial property owners. Renters of commercial property don’t get a vote. Why not? Because they aren’t agreeing to place additional legal burdens (the tax levy) on themselves. Sure, their property owner can and likely will raise their rent and they will benefit from the services, but they have the option to move. The property owner is stuck with the levy. This is also true for special assessments for street lighting. Because these are paid for by, or constrain the rights of, property owners, it’s property owners who get a vote.
None of this is to say that there is no place in these processes (or the proposed conservation district ordinance) for people other than property owners. Renters, developers and builders, even property owners outside a given district may all participate in public meetings and public hearings.
If folks have a problem with the idea that the people who are actually surrendering some of their property rights (either through new restrictions or specific new taxation) are the ones who would have a formal vote in these cases, then they should probably also work on changing the way that we implement special service districts and special assessments – among many other things. In the case of special service districts, that will require changing state law.
Conservation Districts and Housing Equity
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.
In fact, conservation districts might actually be a tool for preserving affordable housing. Sometimes the threat to an area is an influx of people with money, pushing out the existing lower-income residents – what they call “gentrification.” Some cities, like Phoenix, have turned to conservation districts specifically to preserve affordable housing where it is threatened by gentrification.
One Tool Among Many
Conservation districts shouldn’t be used everywhere. They shouldn’t be used as a stalling tactic to stop development, or as a way to preserve low-density buildings simply because they’re low density.
But there are some places, like Milwaukee Avenue and the area around Tower Hill Park in Prospect Park, that are worth conserving. Property owners in those areas might not be willing to accept fairly stringent historic district constraints, but might be willing to support less rigid conservation district guidelines. I think that we can grow Minneapolis in a smart way while giving folks in these areas another tool to preserve places that are worth preserving.
I am basically a supporter of design review in cities because I worked very close with it in Washington DC and found it to be a success. Better architecture and urban design is the result of design review in Washington, DC. But why can’t the process for creating a conservancy district be the same as creating an historic district?
And an incredibly inexpensive city to buy property!
DC was a pretty cheap city up until about 2000. The economy changed and there are a lot of career opportunities in DC now. That’s why it and all regional housing markets are expensive. Housing prices are directly linked to job creation. That’s the only real economic bet one is making when buying residential property.
But DC’s prices have not escalated like New York and San Francisco because there is a lot of building going on. Historic districts therefore do not directly impact the amount of housing in the pipeline. New York City has had more price appreciation but has much worse historic preservation and design review. Have you seen those new townhouses in Williamsburg?
Anyway, your point seems to show that the Conservation Districts will not make properties cheaper and force property owners to lose asset value. I think you are correct and I am surprised that that has become an issue on these threads.
Huh? I think the point being made is that owners would not voluntarily put deed restrictions on their own properties because their properties would lose value, but would favor a cartel of local land owners to restrict anyone to opening up supply of new housing units.
Having cake and eating it too for incumbents.
The National Trust for Historic Preservation does have an assessment program. Not sure if the property needs to be in an Historic District to qualify. Again, this debate is about if urban design is a social good or not. You seem to think that it’s not.
We are not talking about housing units. We are not talking about zoning. Everybody needs to understand that and stop being stubborn and/or stupid.
I believe fully in good urban design. Cities should also be flexible and dynamic. My interpretation of ordinance is that it will make it easier to stop development.
One has to be pretty naive to believe that as the ordinance as it is written today it could not be easily used a bludgeon against new development. Any number of characteristics could be cited that would preclude maximizing allowable densities provided by the zoning code.
It started before then, but yes, mid-1990s through 2007 or so were absolutely crazy in the DC real estate market. It’s partially the same housing bubble that was everywhere, and partly it was people wanted to move back into a city that was righting it’s ship (part of the broader return to urban living).
I don’t think the economy really changed at all, just where all those young lawyers and lobbyist (like me) wanted to live. When I moved there, a friend who was much more familiar with the city (who as it turned out was a pretty timid suburban woman) warned never to go east of 14th St. When I moved away in 2010 I was living east of 12th in a lovely neighborhood.
During the decade of boom, DC housing prices absolutely were escalating like San Francisco and New York. At one point (maybe 2004) the median home price was escalating at something like 10% a month, reportedly.
Since then there has been a ton of new building, which certainly helps, but I’ve not followed the market close enough to know how much.
I just rounded. Do you live in DC now?
DC has become more of a “world class” city though. It is nothing like it was 30 years ago. And I mean the entire region not just the city itself. So you are a lawyer in DC? why there and not MN? Is it the superior career opportunities by chance?
I moved back to Minnesota in 2010 after 11 years of law school and then private practice out there.
It’s amazing how much the city changed just between 1999 and 2010. My first year of law school we had a “bar review” at Republic Garden (gone now) on U Street. I got off the subway at the Cardozo stop and thought I was in a war zone or something. The north side of the street was literally rubble behind chain link for significant stretches. More of that was the result of the still fairly recent Green Line construction than I realized, but still, it was nothing like the bustle that’s there today.
Yes, in order to excavate the stations on the Green line they condemned a lot of buildings. The transit oriented development work there and that corner is smack dab in a lot of historic districts.
PS – Aren’t you glad that Republic Gardens no longer exists?
Great explanation, and good to hear the “other side” (even though this is being framed in a strange way, as you note).
It seems sort of strange to think Prospect Park is embracing density. The current residents are nearly all south of University and the proposed station node development is all north of University. I hope this isn’t a precursor of what would come with conservation districts, with property owners want density in industrial areas but not in their own neighborhoods. People want to be in Minneapolis, and we need an all-of-the-above approach to create value in our city and welcome people who want to live alongside us.
A specific question: would conservation districts allow for incremental intensification of use in our traditional neighborhoods? We’ve lost out on seventy years of incremental intensification – a process that was natural to our ancestors. I’m thinking of things like adding ADUs, adding dwelling units within the primary structure, and possibly allowing for “traditional” structures to become mixed-use or live/work space especially along primary corridors.
I hope we will encourage this type of growth even more than we currently do (it’s so limited thanks to zoning code, parking minimums, etc). Prospect Park already has some of this – think of Signature Cafe that’s halfway down a residential block. Granted, it does seem *a little* out of place, but the structure has probably been there since the dawn of the neighborhood and it fits in well. Yet it wouldn’t be allowed under Euclidian zoning code.
If the requirement is as broad as “the majority of properties embody notable attributes common to the district, including architectural styles, development patterns, scale, or landscape designs”, why couldn’t there be a conservation district to only allow 2.5 story single-family homes with garages on the alley? Wouldn’t you be able to demonstrate that the majority of, say, the Wedge neighborhood was developed as single-family homes with 40′ frontages and service on the alley, and lock that pattern in despite the substantial segments of the neighborhood that are zoned R5?
The conservation district should not replace zoning with regards to lot occupancy and density. I don’t like the application requirements either. I think applications should be put in front of the Heritage Preservation Commission like historic districts are. This should also help to keep conservation districts relatively small in geographic area.
Sorry this wasn’t clearer: the applications for changes to properties *will* go to the HPC, if the proposed changes don’t fit the district guidelines.
And again, both the HPC and CPC will review a proposed conservation district before it is finally voted on by the Council.
The answer to this question is that there are other controls in the ordinance and the application requirements, noted in my article:
“Design guidelines shall not be adopted or applied so as to prohibit uses allowed by the zoning code.” The intent of this language is to rule out exactly the sort of conservation district you’re talking about.
Before a conservation district is put in place, the Planning Commission will have to consider “the relationship of the proposed conservation district to the city’s comprehensive plan” and “the consistency of the proposed conservation district with applicable development plans or development objectives adopted by the city council.” If it’s in direct conflict with the Comp Plan’s future land use (on which zoning is based), the proper finding by the CPC would be that the district is inappropriate and should not be put in place.
Lastly, the advocates for a conservation district will have to address this issue to even get in the door. The proposed application requires “a statement addressing why a zoning amendment or historic district designation would not be as appropriate as the establishment of a conservation district.” In your example, it’s clear that a rezoning of the area in question to a lower density would be the more appropriate avenue. I want to be very clear that I don’t personally support that, but that would be the appropriate process for people to use.
Conservation districts are simply not intended to effectively downzone an entire neighborhood. We’ve tried to be as explicit about that as we can. As I said above, there may be people who support the concept because they view it as a potential vehicle to effectively downzoning an entire neighborhood, but they are wrong about the intent and effect of the proposed ordinance as well.
I am receptive to the Conservation District idea but we all need to understand the hypotheticals.
With regards to the McMansion tear downs, in a Conservation District, the smaller 20th century home which I believe contributes to the public realm as urban design and you think is potential affordable housing in perpetuity, is protected because the owner will not be able to get a demolition permit because the structure would be “contributing”, correct?
We should all assume that the current McMansions in Southwest conform to existing zoning because otherwise they would not be built, or would have to be torn down. If someone owns a vacant lot in a Conservation District any new development would have to conform to the district’s design guidelines or standards correct?
So let’s say that, hypothetically, an area with a fabric of small homes was significant enough to warrant a conservation district, and one was put in place.
In that new conservation district, demolitions would not be prohibited. The regulation would be on the new development. So someone could tear down one of the small homes that contributed to the district and replace it with another small home that was in keeping with the district’s guidelines. This is a key difference between historic districts and conservation districts: it’s not about preserving the actual physical building materials, it’s about proliferating the design.
And no, not all of the McMansions in SW Mpls meet current zoning. (Then-CM Hodges authored a maximum floor area ratio for single family homes, which many of the McMansions built before then do not meet.) But we have nonconforming or “grandfather” rights, meaning that the existing structures don’t have to be torn down.
Thank you very much Robin,
I think that conservation districts and design review will add to our city’s urban form without sacrificing future development. I think that it’s a great idea. Our housing stock and vernacular architecture are irreplaceable assets that are extremely valuable.
Thank you and Council-member Gordon for placing this idea in front of the Council.
Can you explain then what development patterns or scales might be enshrined in a conservation district that wouldn’t more or less reflect a zoning district? Just to clarify, I support the concept of conservation districts and even most of the verbiage in your proposed ordinance (excepting of course the decision to deny renters the right to vote on the creation of districts), I’m just trying to understand the reasoning behind the set of criteria that was developed.
I’m not convinced by your analogy to special service districts or assessments. Despite the name, the majority of the services rendered by SSD are not special, they are the legal requirements of maintaining property, e.g. clearing snow, removing graffiti, etc. So an SSD in effect is government providing a service to property owners through a more efficient means of fulfilling their legal obligations. Assessments, similarly, are not levied to raise general revenue, they’re levied to pay for specific improvements that will either directly improve a property’s value, such as sidewalks, or indirectly improve it, such as having automobile access or safe lighting.
Conservation districts, in contrast, are more like a zoning code, which uses a municipality’s police power to restrict the rights of property owners. Of course we don’t give anyone a vote on their own zoning and maybe we shouldn’t give anyone a vote on whether their property is in a conservation district either, but since the legal basis for conservation districts is rooted in the police power rather than providing services to property owners, there is no special nexus that would restrict the vote to property owners rather than the general population.
And please don’t insult us by saying that if you don’t like it, you can move. Love it or leave it, right? Property owners can move too. If you’re going to disenfranchise a segment of the population, you’re going to have to come up with an actual reason, not just a condescending insult.
Sure, property owners can move. BUT if that’s the approach they take, the conservation distract may mean that their moving comes at a $$ price because the restrictions lower the value of their property. They are penalized by a “takings” of their property value. That is simply not true of renters.
You may believe this to be true, but case law has determined time and time again that restrictions on use of property by zoning is not considered a compensable taking.
But this isn’t zoning. It’s not in the zoning code. That’s Title 20 of the Minneapolis Code of Ordinances; this is an amendment to Title 23, Heritage Preservation.
And whether case law has determined that zoning is a “taking” in the legal sense (under which the City would have to compensate property owners, making zoning practically impossible) or not is not really the issue. The issue is that a special levy for an SSD, a special assessment for street lights, and the restrictions stemming from a historic designation or conservation district all affect the value of a property. Perhaps positively! But that’s why the property owner gets a special ‘say’ under those processes: they’re giving consent to change the value of their property.
As I wrote below, I believe heritage preservation is more akin to the zoning code than to the utility provision purpose of the SSD. I’m sure no lawyer, but it sounds like the city attorney agrees with me.
There are other benefits to SSDs. One of the larger is the special Christmas lights put up on the Holidays. This work goes close to utilities, and is in the public trees and Right of Way. The decorations are only able to be put up (and put up uniformly) when the property owners band together, specifically into an SSD.
Unsurprisingly, I disagree with your assessment. Some of the services provided by special service districts do indeed meet City requirements (litter pickup, snow shoveling, etc.) but many are truly above and beyond any requirements. Items in that category: banners, decorative lighting (for instance on trees in the winter), additional bike racks, benches, planters and other greenery, wayfinding signage, and infrastructure upgrades (decorative fencing, sidewalk pavements, etc.). And even where the City provides services that meet City requirements, it charges those costs back to property owners. This is an issue for some property owners, who provide the required services themselves, but can be compelled to contribute to the SSD whether they like it or not (by the “police power,” as you put it).
Here’s the essential similarity. In SSDs, special assessment areas, and conservation districts, property owners consent to having additional burdens placed on their property, to get some sort of benefit. In SSDs and assessment areas, the burden is an additional tax levy and the benefit is an improved environment. In conservation districts, the burden is that some physical changes to properties aren’t allowed, or must go through a process at the Heritage Preservation Commission, and the benefit is an improved/preserved/stabilized environment.
The other key similarity is that in all three cases some of the benefits and burdens are passed onto renters, either residential or business. Businesses renting commercial property benefit from the improved environment on their commercial corridor, and likely pay the costs through their rents. Residential renters see the benefit of, say, better pedestrian-level streetlights, and likely pay the costs through their rents.
And yes, in all three cases, the renters don’t get a formal “vote,” though they do get a say in the required public hearings. I really wasn’t trying to be condescending or insulting by saying that renters can move – just trying to be factual. There’s a fundamental difference between property owners and renters that you seem to have overlooked. Yes, a property owner can “move” by selling the property to someone else. But the burdens and benefits of any of these three processes *stays with the property.* If the owner wants to sell the property, she will have to defend or explain the additional burden(s) and benefit(s), whatever they are, and try to convince the buyer that they are net positives for the property. Renters do not. This is why state law requires that SSDs get the consent of the property owners, and why it doesn’t have a similar requirement for renters.
Let’s turn the question around, as a thought experiment. Let’s say you were a property owner who *didn’t* like the idea of a conservation district that would include your property, in an area where the vast majority of renters liked the idea. Would you think it was fair for someone to be able to constrain your property rights without surrendering any of their own?
I didn’t make up the term police power; it is a principle of common law and specifically the one used to justify zoning authority in Euclid v Ambler. I’d be interested to see a professional’s opinion on whether the legal basis for the authority to create conservation districts is more akin to that of SSDs, that is, the right of municipalities to levy taxes to provide services, or more akin to that of zoning authority, that is, the police power to ensure public safety and welfare. I’d guess the latter, but I’m not a lawyer. What has the City Attorney said about the proposed ordinance?
My understanding is that SSDs are legally considered more like utilities. Although in practice the participating property owners tend to manage the SSD, in law the City is responsible for this maintenance, for which benefit the property owners pay a fee. If the legal basis for conservation districts instead stems from the police power, then the benefit of the law does not accrue to the individual property but rather to society at large, because at least in legal theory the conservation district exists to ensure public safety and welfare.
One of the reasons government exists is to restrict the actions of individuals. One of the reasons democracy exists is to ensure that those restrictions have the approval of a majority of citizens. So I don’t see any problem with a majority of citizens endorsing a law that would restrict the ability of a property owner to do certain things with his or her property. That sort of thing seems pretty normal to me.
In this case the City Attorney’s Office has opined that the conservation district ordinance is in line with the Heritage Preservation authority passed down to the City from the state. That’s why it’s in Title 23 vs. Title 20.
I’m sorry, but there are just so many examples of places where property owners get formal votes and non-property-owners don’t. If I want to rezone a parcel, I have to be the owner or get the owner’s permission. If I want to rezone a property from residential to commercial, before I can even file a complete application I must get the consent of the property *owners* within 100 feet of the property. What percentage of the property owners within 100 feet of the property? Two thirds. (http://www.ci.minneapolis.mn.us/www/groups/public/@cped/documents/webcontent/convert_270295.pdf) This example is in the zoning code, and in state law (462.357, according to that application form).
There seems to be this idea that this is unusual. It’s not. Either giving the property owners who would give up some of their property rights to form a conservation district veto power over forming one is uniquely unfair (an argument I have yet to see anyone make) or all of the City’s other processes that give property owners special rights are also unfair (an argument I also have yet to see anyone make). This is just not unique.
The fact that it’s *not* unique that property owners will have all of the say in the formation of the conservation districts is sort of the point. It’s exacerbating a power imbalance that already exists historically between renters and property owners.
I believe that historic preservation authority is typically justified by police power as well. Again, why are we restricting a property owner’s ability to destroy or alter his or her property? Are we doing it for the benefit of the property owner or for the general welfare of the public?
You are right that restricting the vote to homeowners is all too common in real estate crazy USA. As we’ve seen recently, there is no constitutional right to vote, although the equal protection amendment has limited this nation’s once-proud tradition of restricting voting rights to white male landowners.
That doesn’t make it right. As Mike notes below, Minneapolis has a microcosm of our national tradition of restricting political participation to upper middle class homeowners in its long experiment with “neighborhood” democracy. It’s disappointing that the Green Party councilmember’s office is not sensitive to that history of exclusion. If I may interpret your argument, you are saying that only homeowners get the vote because only they will be financially affected by the outcome. Even if that were true, wouldn’t it be a tit-for-tat? Is it effective government to legislate that kind of buy-off? Once more, is the purpose of the conservation district to protect property owners’ interests or to protect the character of a area as perceived by the general public?
First, I want to add a solid second to Alex’s objection to your “if you don’t like it, you can move.” Give me a break. If you wanted to actually speak to renters’ objections at being so often overlooked, maybe try to do it without the sneering and condescending attitude?
Much of your piece was quite good and enlightening. I’m glad to know it needs more than just votes of property owners, though the subjectivity of the second requirement does give me pause. I will say that any new conservation options are going to rub me the wrong way, particularly in light of the ongoing saga of the boarding house on Colfax in the wedge. But you do a good job of making your case that urbanists don’t need to be terrified of this proposal.
Then I got to your section on affordable housing. Your argument leads one of two places: either development is restricted to the point where it’s not a desirable place to live and gentrifiers don’t move in, or gentrifiers move in anyway and bid up the prices on existing housing stock, which continues to skyrocket in price as demand rises without more supply to relieve the pressure on prices. We can call this the San Francisco effect. Scaring urbanists with the specter of gentrification is the oldest trick in the book, but it violates basic economics.
And another thing on gentrification: it’s far from clear that preserving older, less desirable housing stock accomplishes anything other than making everyone poorer (gentrifiers and existing residents alike).
It would be interesting to see someone do an analysis of the Phoenix process. My main point in the ‘gentrification’ section is that this ordinance was *not* designed as a successor to redlining.
I do think we should be careful about dismissing the possibility that preserving older housing can have a positive effect. We’ve definitely heard concerns about the effect of transit projects like the Central Corridor: do they help with mobility for low-income people if the resulting development pattern displaces all the low-income people to the extent that they can no longer effectively use the transit?
If “conservation districts” pop up along desirable nodes with good transit. I have a hard time seeing this as anything other than anti-density.
Right. The proposed one in Prospect Park looks like it would be a very good thing, overall. The one that would inevitably show up in Dinkytown, and the many that would show up along the Greenway? Not so much.
Gentrification is a complex problem that requires careful and complex policy responses. But almost never is the right answer to preserve the status quo.
As just one example: http://wgbhnews.org/post/gentrification-may-actually-be-boon-longtime-residents
A study that reaches a different conclusion: http://scholarship.law.georgetown.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1022&context=hpps_papers.
That’s not a “study.” That’s a paper by a first year law student that argues for conservation districts after merely asserting, without support, the conventional view about gentrification.
Great explanation of a complex issue, Robin. Thanks for contributing! I’m still not sure how I feel about this policy…
The purpose of bringing up redlining as historical context was to talk about what happened *after* redlining was outlawed. At that point, homeowners associations, realtors, and neighborhood groups began using terms like “preservation”, “quality of life”, and “neighborhood character” as a way of sneaking class (and race) restrictions into official city policy. All zoning decisions have impacts on social equality (e.g. minimum lot sizes, height restrictions, parking minimums). Will this policy exacerbate or alleviate inequality in Minneapolis? How should we answer that question?
Second, in my opinion, we shouldn’t ignore the power disparity between renters and homeowners that remains problematic in Minneapolis. I’m don’t think we should evaluate this policy without discussing this context, particularly in areas with long-standing town/gown issues. While this policy might be better than Saint Paul’s similarly problematic new regulation of student housing around the Saint Thomas campus, pretending that this policy isn’t about home owners trying to exert more influence on student housing and student- or renter-oriented retail options is naive. That IS what this is about for many people, and I just want to make sure students and renters aren’t excluded from the conversation.
(Two previous articles on the student housing situation in Saint Paul: https://streets.mn/2012/04/24/the-problem-with-the-problem-of-student-housing/
It remains to be seen how this policy plays out. We’ve just received our first ever student housing variance application at the Planning Commission…)
The last point is about Milwaukee Avenue, a street that I love. (See a previous ode to it from my blog: http://tcsidewalks.blogspot.com/2008/03/sidewalk-of-week-milwaukee-avenue.html) While I love the street and the story of its rescue is inspiring, I don’t think Milwaukee Avenue should serve as a model for Minneapolis as a whole. Honestly, of all the times I’ve walked down this two-block stretch, I’ve never seen a single one of the home owners out on their porch. Am I unlucky? Milwaukee Avenue feels like a museum, not a city. What are the demographics of the street? Is it a diverse place? Are there children? Who will be living on the street in twenty years?
I don’t know the answer to these questions. I can guess, but I’m an idiot.
The point is that we need to make sure we’re making a city that is alive and open to opportunity, not one that’s “conserved” in amber.
So, to sum up, this proposal might be OK if we changed the name and focused on architectural quality and design issues. But I continue to have concerns about how this tool might be wielded in the future.
But no matter how you feel, thanks very much for expanding the conversation beyond my poorly-titled previous post…
PS “conservation conversation” is a real tongue twister!
That was the idea.
First, I think I have a better understanding of what the “redlining” thing was about now. I don’t think that the proposed conservation district tool is necessarily on one “side” or the other of social equality. Like many other tools used by cities (and not just land use tools), it could be used to preserve expensive single family homes that would otherwise be torn down for affordable apartments, or to preserve lower-income apartments at risk of being replaced by high-end condos. This is a good lens to use when judging the merits of a particular conservation district, in my opinion, but not whether the tool itself is worth having. Again, historic designation can be a model. Some of the things that have been preserved were poor-people housing in the past (Milwaukee) and are now worth much more. Some (frat row) are still used by the same types of people. Some (the Warehouse District) changed uses entirely.
Second, I think you’re right that there are renter/homeowner implications for this, as with many of our policies. I don’t think the focus on the 1/3 and 2/3 votes is the right way to address that concern, for the reasons I’ve stated. I also don’t want to lose sight of just how much student rental already exists right in the communities we’re talking about (like Prospect Park). Even up on the hill, there’s a heck of a lot of rental. There are some beautiful old brick apartment buildings right in the heart of the district. I really don’t think the motivation is animus towards renters. I think it’s a desire to preserve culturally significant neighborhood fabric, which includes both rental and ownership. To the extent that this is a rental/homeownership question, it’s mostly about the poor quality of much of the new low-density rental construction. (Like, for example, the poster child for poor urban design being planned for 1218-1222 Como Ave SE.)
I also think that there is some real value to preserving some opportunities for homeownership in cities. When you talk about the impact of redlining, one of the main negative impacts was to specifically target certain groups, like African Americans, to keep them out of the greatest period of middle-class wealth creation in US history, during the 40s-60s. A huge portion of that wealth creation was in people’s homes.
We have a very different experience of Milwaukee Ave. Go there today and you’ll find one of the best snow forts I have ever seen. There are kids on that street much of the time, and I know because I go to the Seward Cafe at least once a week. You’re right that there isn’t much porch-sitting, but porch-sitting seems to be a lost art on most of our streets, not just Milwaukee. I blame the Internet.
Lastly, I just want to point out that your words on conserving areas “in amber” sounds almost exactly like one of the proponents of conservation districts in Prospect Park, who happens to be an architect who works on a lot of federal courthouse projects around the country (and is one of the chief architects of Prospect Park 2020). His phrase is that he doesn’t want to “shrink wrap” the neighborhood, but to provide guidelines that help the neighborhood grow and change in positive, well-designed ways that are compatible with the existing fabric.
Perhaps there is more common ground than it seemed, when this discussion was first framed as a fight between urbanists and NIMBYs?
“Like many other tools used by cities (and not just land use tools), it could be used to preserve expensive single family homes that would otherwise be torn down for affordable apartments, or to preserve lower-income apartments at risk of being replaced by high-end condos”
There is zero evidence that this will help preserve low-rent apartments. Quite the opposite.
Affordability is an economic thing; the economic impact of a conservation or historic preservation regulation like this is fundamentally a limit on new supply. And while the market dynamics are complex, you cannot escape (at the larger scales) the laws of supply and demand.
The ordinance might be very successful at preserving the physical form of those old apartments, but it cannot and will not preserve their price point. If and when demand for living in the area rises, the pressure will come for additional housing. Without additional supply, the price will rise. And when the price pressure is rising, the reaction will be to renovate those apartments and market them to higher income brackets.
When the demand is there for new luxury housing, the market can either meet it with additional supply or with existing supply, renovated to appeal to a more expensive segment of the market.
If you really want to preserve that low-income housing, you should embrace luxury condos, as the luxury units will absorb most of the demand. This is a basic mechanism for how markets work:
” I don’t think that the proposed conservation district tool is necessarily on one “side” or the other of social equality.”
The motivations of the proposal might be benign, but that doesn’t mean the impacts (known and unknown) will be.
I cringe every time I read something as soft and ill-defined as “culturally significant neighborhood fabric.” It just sounds so much like something that’s going to be easily abused.
Also, the whole “If you’re against conservation districts, you should *really* be working against the existing historic district ordinance” and “If you think conservation districts disenfranchise renters, you should *really* be working to change how we implement special service districts and assessments” is not much of an argument. The issue being discussed is the proposed conservation districts, and assigning imagined inconsistencies to your opponents doesn’t do much to advance the conversation at hand.
Again, unsurprisingly, I disagree. First, about historic preservation, one of the points I was trying to make is that it works in many cases, like Milwaukee Ave (seems I disagree with Bill on this?). I’m definitely seeing a through-line between the folks who wanted to tear down Milwaukee Ave in the past and the folks who currently oppose conservation districts as a tool. I think they’re wrong in both cases.
I also think that there are places where it is appropriate – when we are asking people to place a special burden on the property they own – to ask those people for their consent. I tried to share some examples of public processes that already exist that are in line with the proposed conservation district process. Are they exactly the same? Of course not. Are they fundamentally similar? I think so. If they are fundamentally similar, and one is obviously totaly unjust, shouldn’t they all be? If they aren’t, why not? If they are, why does it seem like no one has noticed the grave injustice of the way we do SSDs and special assessments?
Here’s the thing: it’s not a hypothetical argument. A commercial area in our ward just went through a long, quite contentious argument about whether or not to create a self-managed SSD. That SSD would have had a positive effect on a number of business renters – not to mention the thousands of nearby residents who would have benefitted from the better snow shoveling and etc. It was scuttled by a half dozen business property owners. When you’re slipping and sliding around on Cedar Avenue, you should know that renters didn’t have a vote on creating that SSD. They had the power to make that decision because state law says so, and state law says so because they are the folks who would actually pay the freight.
My argument is that this is fair, in all three cases. The people surrendering some portion of their rights in a special process should be able to give special consent to surrender those rights. If you disagree with that, fine. But do you disagree with it in all cases, or just in the case of a conservation district? And if so, why?
Re-posting this comment since it was flagged as spam (?)
Great post, and I’m positive we all appreciate the well-articulated rebuttal. Couple questions/thoughts:
– “the majority of properties embody notable attributes common to the district, including architectural styles, development patterns, scale, or landscape designs.” Won’t most neighborhoods in Minneapolis fit that exact description? Aside from areas where structures were torn down and new apartments (or parking) erected in place in the 50s-70s, most residential neighborhoods all exhibit a consistent architectural vernacular, development pattern (ie detached, 2-3 story homes surrounding small commercial nodes), scale (setbacks, height, etc), and so on.
– ““design guidelines shall not be adopted or applied so as to prohibit uses allowed by the zoning code.” But will ordinances keep zoning from changing or evolving over time? While zoning may have many flaws in current implementation, a quicker and market-responding review process would facilitate changing demands on areas. Does this ordinance prevent areas from changing from R1-4 to something of higher use? This statement, “It might make perfect sense in a conservation district centered in an area notable for its ramblers to require development to conform to certain rambler-esque design features” seems to support that notion.
– “Are McMansions good urban design? Might it be worth preserving some smaller, more affordable housing stock?” Will preserving housing stock while demand continues to increase for urban living keep those housing options affordable? What about the giant mansions rich folk of the past built that we want to keep and preserve today (I would place a very good bet that areas such as Lowry Hill, Kenwood, or Calhoun-Isles could use a conservation district as defined to protect what are most definitely large mansions)? Is there really a difference? My guess is that outdated zoning is the reason we see small units torn down and larger units that build to the maximum allowed height/coverage/etc by zoning rather than multiple small units (row homes, small apartments with good design, etc).
Re Prospect Park folks: I agree that the attitude this neighborhood has toward growth is much more accepting than what you might find elsewhere in Minneapolis (or the US). Additionally, at present time the development as proposed and under construction makes sense given the LRT, resulting under-utilized land, and student housing demand. But what about 30 years from now when demand for higher density housing creeps into the SF areas of PP?
On the whole, I think the biggest issue I have is that no one has defined exactly how or why conservation really does benefit Minneapolis. What are the economic positives of conservation or preservation, and do they outweigh the costs? Good urban design can range from detached homes to 12+ story Metropolitan buildings, so why not allow or promote that? The problem with tearing down structures like the Metropolitan building wasn’t that we lost it, it’s that we got worse urban form in its place (parking lots). If they had built a 40 story tower that addressed the street the way its predecessor did, I don’t think we’d miss it so much.
The constant invocation of the Metropolitan buildings, as though tearing it down was the sin, is a serious pet peeve. As you say, the problem there was not so much the tearing down as the replacing it with nothing.
Well, there is a building there now. I still think we’d be better off with the Metropolitan than what replaced it, both in density terms and in cultural terms. I think we’re better off with Milwaukee Ave than the stuff that was built (by private developers, mostly) just to the west of it.
Here’s a thought experiment: would there be anything wrong with tearing down, say, City Hall? The Milwaukee Depot? Other historically designated properties?
I would strongly argue that the way buildings interact with the public realm is 1) degraded relative to the past and 2) a direct result of all sorts of tampering in the transportation and land-use sectors since 1940 (and even before). Most of the places we cherish in this country were built before Euclidian zoning, before parking minimums, before large freeways into downtown induced demand of vehicles searching for places to easily park, etc.
To answer your question directly, yes I do personally think that tearing down City Hall would be a bad idea because it is one building that has held many significant events throughout the history of our city, and also happens to have some gorgeous design elements that (for myriad reasons) don’t exist anymore. Preserving one-off examples of a particular age/style or buildings with significant importance is a great goal. But if there were 15 city hall-esque buildings in that district, I don’t think I’d have a problem with 13-14 of them being torn down to allow architecture in our city to continue evolving while providing more office/residential space for would-be residents (as long as the building relates to the street well, IMO).
I disagree that when you have a bunch of lovely old buildings that are unique to a city that preserving one of them is enough. A city is not a museum. I became involved in this issue last year when a housing developer was going to tear down a “tied house”, one of the old brewery bar buildings. Their argument was that so long as there was one, it didn’t matter. But not only are those remaining buildings good urbanist buildings (commerical store front below, housing above) but they have a distinctly “Minneapolis” feel. There’s some value to that.
I am, however, still suspicious of the motives and necessity of conservation districts, and I seriously doubt anyone will miss any of the low-slung 1950s Dinkytown retail whose tear down seems to have inspired this legislation.
Just for what it’s worth, this ordinance was in process before the Dinkytown controversy erupted. It was inspired by the problems Prospect Park faced in putting a historic district in place, after a formal designation study had been prepared that indicated that part of the neighborhood did indeed meet the criteria for historic preservation. The problem was that the requirements of historic districts were much more stringent than the property owners were willing to accept. Essentially, the existing answer for historic districts is “all or nothing”: either you preserve the existing building materials (windows, etc.) or you get no protections at all. This is designed to be a middle ground to allow areas to preserve the sort of value you’re talking about in a way that those whose property is impacted will actually accept.
Also, I agree with your main point: sometimes the “landmark” building can stand on its own, but sometimes it’s the overall historic fabric that matters. Preserving one Milwaukee Avenue railroad house would not accomplish much of anything; preserving two full blocks of them accomplishes a lot. Sometimes what’s important is not the individual structure, but the overall district and how the individual structures relate.
My favorite example is there wouldn’t be a warehouse district with one warehouse.
I guess my unanswered question(s) still remains: what did preserving 2 full blocks of those homes accomplish, outside the likely risk of the lots sitting vacant for a good chunk of time afterward (which is why I’m not a fan of the city/state demolishing buildings – bad track record IMO)? What is the social value of a bunch of SFHs relative to row-homes or apartment buildings? Or a particular generation of apartment buildings vs new ones? Do they bring in more property tax or make residents/workers more productive? Are we seeing a booming tourism industry as a result of our existing structures? Will preserving any given district’s housing stock attract more people to the city than preservation/housing supply limitations might force people to the suburbs? You note that allowing more people to make short, walk/bike/transit trips as an environmental goal is key to your position (and I 110% agree), but does this ordinance promote or hinder that goal?
To the point above, preservation that “those whose property is impacted will actually accept” again misses a huge swath of other stakeholders, ie those who would live in Minneapolis but are restricted from doing so. Do they get a voice?
It depends on what you’re going to replace them with. Which is the answer to any question of “should we tear X down.”
In the case of City Hall and the depot they have actual historic significance (unlike the “it’s old” significance that gets brought up in the inevitable efforts to stop all redevelopment projects), which would mean that whatever we wanted to replace them with would have to be really, really important and there would have to be some reason why it had to be there. That’s very unlikely, but who knows.
Great responses. A few thoughts:
– No, I think that “most neighborhoods” in Mpls don’t rise to the “notable” level. I live in Cooper, just south of Brackett Park. I don’t think my area would be appropriate for a conservation district, because the development pattern doesn’t rise up to that level.
– Zoning should be an expression of the Comp Plan’s future land use map. The CPC will have to measure every proposed conservation district’s relationship with the Comp Plan. Perhaps the existence of a conservation district would impact the Council’s decisions about future Comp Plans, but a) many things do (the Comp Plan has a certain amount of inertia) and b) maybe it should.
– I think you’re underplaying the effect of the market on McMansionization – the desire for suburban-style housing in the city, and the willingness of developers to tear down perfectly adequate but smaller housing to create it. In my opinion – remember that much of what drives me is related to climate change and environmental policy generally – tearing down small single-family homes to build oversized single family homes is not a good thing.
– I think people are a) forgetting that a good bit of the development in Prospect Park has actually been south of University, including hundreds of dwelling units in the last ten years, and b) there’s actually quite a bit of existing, and culturally significant, apartment housing up on the hill. But yes, this is essentially what they’re trying to do. They want to preserve a core neighborhood that works well and has some real historical significance, while actively contributing to growing the city by thousands of dwelling units. Again, let’s remember that the U area grew more than anywhere in Minneapolis outside of downtown over the decade from 2000-2010.
– I’m not sure that the only benefit of preservation is economic, or that that’s the only lens we should use. What about the cultural significance of a place like Milwaukee Avenue? There are places that certainly see huge economic benefits from having preserved much of their historic character (Savannah, GA, comes to mind), but isn’t part of urbanism building cities that people want to live in? And can’t preserving some significant structures and neighborhoods that were built more than a few years ago help with that? I think it can and will.
– I would be willing to bet that most people don’t feel that way about their neighborhoods, particularly ones dominated by detached single-family homes (which we’ve tied our cultural preference to as the ideal home style), and they’ll at least try.
– My point was that once a CD is implemented, isn’t zoning within the Comp Plan completely set? Is there anything further to consider?
– If much of what drives you is mitigating climate change, saying it’s ok to leave slightly smaller SF homes in place (where people are more likely to own cars and drive for a larger share of trips) vs allowing new/larger SF homes (which may or may not end up using less energy) is a pretty bad goal. The difference between a new building housing a family of ~4 people and the old one may be very marginal. OTOH, allowing high-value neighborhoods to intensify is a far better goal. There are some unintended consequences of limiting the market to only build large structures right near high value nodes (like transit or existing commercial hubs like Uptown), since the middle-ground of housing options (rowhomes, low-rise condos) that may replace existing structures would allow small or growing families to stay in Minneapolis when they may not find/afford places in an OD scenario.
– Come on. Most of the PP development south of University is on the eastern and western fringe, both of which was under-utilized industrial land. Can you tell me how the core neighborhood (why is the low-value, SFH part the “core”?) works better than Georgetown, Park Slope, Boston’s North End, etc? Yes, it’s great that the U area grew a ton in the past decade and temporarily allowed areas like PP and Como to stay in the idyllic American form, but what happens when 2,500 recent grads want a 3 BR 2 BA place for them and their kids within walking distance of that high quality LRT serving the U and both downtowns? Why should we hold the market back from building more units in place of what’s there?
– My understanding of cities was to foster the spatial benefits a business or person sees by living/working in proximity to one another. Random interactions and high degree of access are good for innovation, good for job access, good for allowing specialization, etc. All those things can be measured. Good urban design makes the difference keeping people there or not, but good urban design can be found in structures from 1 story to 50.
As a side benefit, dense and walkable areas happen to allow people to use less energy to get around, they keep us healthy by providing human-powered mobility options, and reduce the unnecessary use of land for housing and transpo. When places become valuable, many people are also willing to give up personal space for proximity, lowering unit size and sharing walls/etc (lowering energy use, also a good thing). All those things can be measured. I can’t measure why PP, Lowry Hill, or Linden Hills (areas I see as prime candidates to push for a CD) are more worthy in their current form than something that may replace it (as long as the design accommodates people in a meaningful, prioritized way). I’m sure there are social benefits to preserving areas, but I don’t think they outweigh the opportunity costs.
Who decides what’s “perfectly adequate but smaller housing?” Or that its adequateness is sufficient reason to give someone other than the property owner power to dictate what’s to the done with the property? Shouldn’t the element of personal preference inherent in such a decision be strong reason to pause over whether this is a good idea?
On an unrelated note, is it really greener to keep a smaller, ’50s era (or older) house than replace it with a newer one, even if it’s larger? I don’t know, except to note that many older houses are not as well insulated and have older and less efficient appliances and HVAC, so it would not seem obvious that smaller is the key factor.
And why do we keep talking about this as though what is happening in Prospect Park is particularly informative? No matter what the motivations and plans of those currently involved are, this is a general proposal that will apply elsewhere.
Finally, was Savannah “preserved?” Or did it stay that way because for a long time no one wanted to change it? I don’t know for Savannah in particular, but the usual way we get actual preservation isn’t by putting regulatory barriers in the way of change, but rather through sufficiently long periods of neglect to convert what was once just old into something quaint. The warehouse district, for example, is not there because of preservation. Nor DC’s Georgetown (although it has many protections now).
Georgetown is protected by a specific Federal Statute and has been since the 50s.
Yes, that’s my point. The 18th and 19th century buildings that make Georgetown what it is are not there because of protections that were put in place as much as 150 years after they were built.
That’s when the regulation was determined to be needed. We only want want the government stepping in when harm is done.
With regards to there being no preservation regulations before the 1950s, well a lot changed after the Great Depression, especially with regards to housing finance. A lot more money is available to a lot more people. I think that we all know that this has not correlated with great urban environments (sprawl, urban renewal).
Man, I love me some Savannah. If you’re ever there, go to Pinky Masters.
I have never been. I really want to go.
With all due respect, “we have really good intentions” is not much of a case. The procedures you’re advocating can and will be used for NIMBY and anti-density purposes. Decisions will be fueled by nostalgia and driven by the local squeaky wheels, instead of by good planning.
Given that we know those are likely outcomes, why is the proposal nonetheless worthwhile?
But the author gives away that game, “It might make perfect sense in a conservation district centered in an area notable for its ramblers to require development to conform to certain rambler-esque design feature.”
No, that would never make perfect sense. That type of rule is exactly the sort of ridiculous overreach that should scare us about this proposal. A small group of property owners should not be able to come together to take away their neighbors’ property rights to build a house in a different style, especially to “conserve” one with no particular historic significance that is far from rare.
This whole argument is beyond flimsy. “If you don’t like this, you really shouldn’t like this other thing” is no case for making a change whose potential for abuse is obvious.
Well, sorry, but “we have really good intentions” is a missatatement of my case. My case is actually “I hear your concerns that this could be used for NIMBY anti-density purposes, but look, here are the ways the ordinance and application requirements have been drafted to prevent that possibility.” You haven’t actually dealt with that argument.
Another way you’ve misstated not just my argument but the proposal itself: “a small group of property owners” will not be able to create a conservation district. The Minneapolis City Council, with the consent of at least two thirds of property owners and with the review of both the Heritage Preservation Commission and Planning Commission, will be able to create a conservation district. The ordinance makes all of that explicit.
So I just reject your assertion that “those are the likely outcomes.” Those are risks, we’ve taken steps to mitigate those risks, and you’ve pretended as if we haven’t.
The fundamental problem is that msot development will follow the path of least resistance. These kinds of regulations do nothing to change that path by streamlining development to the areas where it is most useful, but rather to throw up more reactive regulations in opposition to market forces.
In short, there is a huge, huge risk of sweeping unintended consequences.
If the focus is on urban design, why not work on directly implementing form-based zoning? If what you want is X, then regulate X directly. Remember that development will mostly follow the path of least resistance. Shape that path to get what you want.
There are many logical fallacies presented in this piece. I tend to find logical fallacies unconvincing.
This ordinance is about giving more power to incumbents. Truly the worst part of urban politics.
I will be contacting my ward’s CM and letting them know I oppose the ordinance.
NIMBY is a dumb term and we should all stop using it.
Nick In My Back Yard
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