I recently chaired the most controversial meeting of my short urban planning ‘career’ (or the unpaid equivalent). ~30 residents and business owners from CARAG came to our Land Use and Transportation committee meeting for a good old fashioned zoning debate. The property in question held C1 zoning until 1999, when Minneapolis rezoned many isolated commercial uses to residential. The options for this property, which lies adjacent to a commercial zone but even closer to a single family home, were unfortunately limited. Keeping the R2B zoning and applying for a Nonconforming Use (NCU) would allow neighborhood review for new uses. Applying for a NCU would also encumber small business applicants with ~$1,000 in fees and a six week waiting period. Rezoning to C1 would be much easier on new tenants, although it would open up a wide range of possible uses including a radio tower and a preschool.
This debate is symptomatic of growing pains felt by medium-density neighborhoods. These are our inner city streetcar suburbs that fall somewhere between Manhattan’s public realm and the epic privacy that North Dakota offers. They occupy a vague middle ground that accomplishes some benefits of both extremes while getting the full effects of neither. As development pressure looms, otherwise moderate neighbors can be found advocating for either the private or public realm, making either extreme a more difficult reality.
In this circumstance, the privacy ideal was well represented by existing legal conditions as well as by vocal neighbors. The 1999 zoning changes introduce a significant hardship for prospective tenants in the name of private neighborhood influence. Through the review process, neighbors are able to advocate for their private access to public amenities such as street parking and sidewalks. If the commercial property failed to secure a tenant and remained unused, it could lose its privilege to apply for a Nonconforming Use at all. Therefore, these commercial properties would need to continuously meet the neighborhood’s subjective standards or risk becoming completely illegal altogether.
This legal framework is typical of the suburban era’s privacy-oriented ideal of use segregation. However, is this appropriate policy for a medium-density neighborhood which also serves as a regional poster child for the public realm? Standalone businesses in residential neighborhoods extend walkability to countless residences. This walking privilege is increasingly an indicator of residential desirability and real estate values, a trend demonstrated nationwide. If a regional priority is reducing reliance on private transportation, improving perception of walkable places is essential.
Legalizing use-integration and inner-neighborhood public space is much more publicly palatable when successful examples exist in our backyard. CARAG already has one of the highest walk scores in Minneapolis and has been the setting of several other regionally exclusive experiments in improving the public realm. It therefore seems only in the best interest of urbanism’s regional reputation that one of our flagship neighborhoods usher in progressive policies in regards to public space.
Unfortunately, this planning-centric logic can be hard to envision, even to folks who might be otherwise in favor of great public amenities. Issues like parking and traffic can be a knee jerk priority even if it impedes great urbanism in progress. These tangible private benefits can be more persuasive than theoretical public benefits, especially if privacy is the legal status quo. If handled carefully, though, the investments made in our first few ‘project’ neighborhoods will serve as regional backyard examples of how pro-urban policies and practices end up creating some of the best places to live.