What if Minneapolis Enacted a Moratorium in 1895?

Minneapolis didn’t go from single-family homes to towering skyscrapers overnight. It took incremental growth over the course of 160 years to get it where it is today. But, what would Minneapolis look like if we decided to preserve itself in 1895?


The intersection of 5th and 2nd Avenue would look drastically different.


The intersection on 7th [Portland] and 6th Avenue would be lined with elegant homes, which admittedly is better than the existing surface parking lots.


It’s hard to imagine 7th Street as a row of single family homes.

Showing these comparisons is unfair. It misses a step. It’s likely that the demolished single family homes of downtown Minneapolis were the second iteration of development. Homes originally made of wood by settlers transformed into a patchwork of permanent brick buildings. Those mid-sized brick buildings eventually morphed into the larger buildings we see today.

Great places evolve. This is a healthy and historic form of urban growth: start small and build up. Throughout human history, our places have evolved using this approach.



Understanding the quirks of incremental urbanism [Click for Source]

We’ve gotten plenty of things wrong along the way. Our wide cultural adoption of the automobile sprawled our places and destroyed a lot of great buildings in the name of car storage. Our towering skyscrapers offer little in the way ground-level urbanism and our skyways keep our sidewalks empty.

It might be time for our single family neighborhoods in Minneapolis to expand upwards once again. The new larger homes will be the duplexes of tomorrow. The duplexes of tomorrow will transform into small apartment buildings, and so on. Urban history appears to not be repeating itself because we’re not letting it; be it opposition to a small apartment building or new,  larger single family homes.

The only problem is that Minneapolis has forgotten it’s a city.

My favorite compare/contrast image is looking towards the State Capital along what is now Cedar in downtown St. Paul. The image shows St. Paul’s humble origins and tremendous growth. It also shows us the things we’ve done wrong: parking garage, drive-thru bank, dead streetscape, the skyway and the three lane one-way street.


*Important Note: All of the historic images were collected from the Minnesota Historical Societies Collections archives. It’s a great resource and I recommend checking it out. Everything else is from Google Streetview. The historic photo locations are approximate. The collection only mentions that buildings are, for example, “On the corner of 7th Ave & 5th St, Minneapolis.”

13 thoughts on “What if Minneapolis Enacted a Moratorium in 1895?

  1. Sean Hayford OlearySean Hayford Oleary

    Your language choices are interesting, since the only “moratorium” I’m aware of being actively discussed in Minneapolis today is the Linden Hills (and adjacent neighborhoods’) teardown moratorium. The reference the controversy on Colfax home is a little misleading, since there’s been no attempt I’m aware of to have any widespread moratorium in that neighborhood.

    But regarding Linden Hills: I don’t think anyone imagines that this moratorium will last for 100+ years. A better hypothetical might be, “What if Minneapolis had instituted a 10-year moratorium on downtown teardowns in 1955?” What if we used that time to better understand the impacts that teardowns might have on our future? What if took the time to create better planning code that allows replacements to fit more comfortably into their environment?

    1. Nathaniel M Hood

      Good question / comments. The premise of the post is silly, and one year certainly isn’t the end of the world. All I wanted to illustrate (which I probably did a poor job of) is that Minneapolis needs to acknowledge that it’s a city.

      My hesitation to support a study is more based on my personal experiences, as someone who has helped (and currently helps) with studies. They’re designed, more times than not, to delay tough political decisions. I haven’t read to many studies (which I read very often) where I’ve really learned something new or earth-shattering.

      There will be nice colorful charts and maps. There will be recommendations of some sort, such as when and where to put dumpsters, and something quirky about setbacks. They’ll recommend certain changes. The City Council will adopt about 25% of the recommendations. Development goes back to normal, minus dumpster placement.

      I personally see the problem as us denying ourselves the acknowledgement that we live in a dense, urban area that needs to become more dense and more urban. The fact that most of Minneapolis is zoned R1 (or R1A) is pretty ridiculous.

      Thanks for commenting -Nate

    2. Adam MillerAdam

      There is a big difference between a property owner tearing down a building to build a new one and the city tearing down whole sections of the city because “blight.”

  2. Adam MillerAdam

    The urban drive through bank has joined the surface parking lot as among my most enraging urban sights. And they are surprisingly common.

  3. I Am A Person

    interesting how most of these before/after sets depict a decrease in residential population.

    1. Nathaniel

      Huge residential decrease, in a lot cases. That’s a good observation. Not everything we’ve built has been an improvement. When did downtown peak in population? Maybe the 20s? I’m not sure of the numbers but it’ be great to see some maps and charts.

      Also – I distinguish a difference between destruction for lots and destruction for re-builds. Although again, not everything we’ve built has been an improvement. In this case though, I don’t see the new stuff as any better or worse than the existing stock (in most cases).

  4. Cadillac Kolstad

    The large skyscrapers pictured present a predicament for the urbanist.
    While outwardly appearing to be more intensive land use this pattern across the united states was accelerated by urban renewal in the 50’s-80’s. During this period central cities, and the federal govt. Invested money and resources in land clearance and new construction of mostly large corporate headquarters, with the hope of revitalizing the central city, and an eye to providing jobs to residents.
    Unfortunately for many reasons the result was different. The companies hired suburban dwellers, this exacerbated commuting from outlying areas, at great expense to resources and the environment. The displacement of hundreds of businesses also increased central city dwellers need to commute to the suburbs to purchase goods.
    The result in numerous cities was a loss of vibrancy in downtowns, particularly after 5 pm, a loss of small businesses and housing (to freeways and new single use buildings) and further marginalization of urban dwelling workers.
    Urban dwellers paid for much of this through taxes and gained little in return, arguably the people who paid for this experienced a hardship, and loss of quality of life.
    For further discussion of this see “Cities and Society” By Ivan Light 1980, section on urban renewal.
    In 1880 Downtown was not all residential it was primarily “mixed use” the city limits were much smaller and the city was still expanding. Modern demolition techniques were not available, and a common practice in Minneapolis for land clearance was moving buildings to another location . . . by horses! (you can see some of these in seward)
    I agree that in many cases building “up” and adding floors to buildings is a good idea for improving things, there is a loss of return after a certain number of floors.
    As a side note, though building up has always been a component of cities, Height restrictions have been with us almost as long. Building heights were restricted in ancient Rome since at least the 1st century AD / CE.


    1. Nathanael

      In Rome, the height restrictions were partly due to lack of engineering expertise; really tall buildings had a nasty tendency to collapse. Not so much an issue any more.

      1. Cadillac Kolstad

        Not exactly, the hazards of the insulae (roman apartment) of fire and collapse were caused by unscrupulous land developers, property owners and builders cutting corners to maximize profits. Still a problem!!

        Romans had extensive knowledge of reinforced concrete and iron pin / block construction. Consider the pantheon (still standing intact continuously used for 2,000 years) and the Colosseum mostly still standing. The romans were excellent engineers. The problems were caused because of lack of building code rather than knowledge.
        But that was not the major point of my post.
        Thanks though!

        1. Cadillac Kolstad

          One really interesting fact is that
          Ceasar Augustus placed the first limit of 70 feet on these apartments, almost identical to the limit for wood sick frame buildings in Minneapolis today!!!!!! For the same reasons! And thats what is mostly being built! How archaic!!

  5. Eric SaathoffEric S

    The larger houses represent a larger square foot / person ratio than the smaller homes (in terms of the house itself, not the lot). How do you figure that the larger houses of today will be the duplexes of tomorrow? That would seem to be a reverse of this trend (smaller square foot / person).

    It seems a bit like the young Edina crowd wants to have their large houses but be in the city edge to be a bit closer to commercial / transportation options. Again, I don’t foresee these people moving into a duplex. Perhaps a large condo development.

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