In Favor of the Southwest Moratorium

Someone's gotta stick up for the little guys

Someone has to stick up for the little guys

Call me inconsistent, but I’m conflicted regarding the Southwest Moratorium. Considering my previous positions and ideology, it seems hypocritical to support a freeze on all new construction permits in the five neighborhoods that Linea Palmisano represents. I had an uneasiness with my immediate supportive reaction after news of the moratorium broke, especially since so many of my density-minded peers quickly denounced it. In the recent past I have written to representatives and officials to voice support for the demolition of a historic home and to grant variances and special permits in order to build an over-sized structure in a congested corridor. Why, then, does a building boom in a largely single-family part of the city make me so agitated?

There are a lot of differences between southwest Minneapolis and the city’s commercial cores. I, for one, would rather live where I do and have almost everything I need within walking distance. That said, southwest Minneapolis is beautiful. It is surely a wonderful place to raise a family and to become part of a tight-knit community. Those tree-lined single-family neighborhoods still contain the urban sensibility that we are all in this together. Yes, those residents could buy themselves more square-feet in a former cornfield, but they chose to live here. I think that shows class.

What makes me unsympathetic of the tear-downers is that they are importing a suburban sense of selfishness in to a traditional, restrained, and modest mostly-upper-income community. They aren’t bringing increased density to an under-utilized commercial core, they are replacing single-family homes with bigger single-family homes and giving their future neighbors the finger while doing it. I don’t mourn for the loss of the physical structures – although their embodied energy is most certainly greater than the benefits of whatever “green” homes they may be replaced with. In fact, if a developer somehow cobbled together the ability to tear down six adjacent homes and replace them with a community of 15 row houses I would support it 100%. This is not what is happening.

This recent building boom does nothing to add to Minneapolis’ population, and therefore I have no problem scoffing at it. I reject the self-serving culture that fueled the suburban boom through the better part of a century, and I admire young families that choose to squeeze themselves in to smaller homes than they might be able to afford elsewhere. There is dignity in trying to rekindle the sense of community that was so quickly consumed by freeways and sub-divisions. Having an address in a major city has become in vogue, but I’m afraid that the new construction permits in southwest Minneapolis are on the behalf of people whom are not yet willing to part with their suburban comforts.

SW house 2

I mean…

My personal and professional mission has been to work to make city living so good that the suburban land-use pattern can no longer compete. This can only be accomplished by holding steadfast to traditional urban sensibilities and courtesies. Accommodating suburban whims and fancies will not win the battle. In fact, the houses being erected in southwest Minneapolis are Trojan horses. If we let them run rampant they will ransack our city from the inside out.

Surely it is possible that a much higher level of density will eventually reach southwest Minneapolis, and at that time larger buildings and over-sized homes could be converted in to multi-tenant dwellings. However, there are many iterations of urbanity to be had between now and then. Southwest Minneapolis was caught unprepared for the sort of marauding architecture that has been fomented outside of the city and is now pounding at the gates. This moratorium gives officials time to establish guidelines and restrictions in order to prevent the current building boom from destroying the charm that inspired it.

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21 Responses to In Favor of the Southwest Moratorium

  1. Bill Lindeke
    Bill Lindeke March 26, 2014 at 8:02 am #

    Ug, that house is awful.

    There should be a deal where SW Mpls gets to keep control over teardowns only in exchange for zoning density in places like Linden corner.

  2. jacobus March 26, 2014 at 8:47 am #

    Good call. I come to Minnesota from Tucson, where old, moderately dense, central neighborhoods have been decimated by tear-downs and replacement with giant cheap garages.

    If the city had had the guts to stall and create guidelines before these monstrosities came in, it’d be a much better place.

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  3. Sean Hayford Oleary
    Sean Hayford Oleary March 26, 2014 at 10:17 am #

    I always think the terminology is interesting, because Linden Hills is objectively suburban. It’s just that post-1950 suburbs have made subsuburban the new suburban. Thus, we’re left with a lack of good terminology to describe places like Linden Hills, Morningside, Robbinsdale, Richfield, or Columbia Heights. They’re not urban in the same way downtown is, obviously. But they’re just as clearly not suburban like Lakeville is.

    But to the point: “They aren’t bringing increased density to an under-utilized commercial core, they are replacing single-family homes with bigger single-family homes and giving their future neighbors the finger while doing it.”

    Yes. This. I’m also going to point to my personal least favorite teardown, on my block in Richfield.

    • Sam Newberg
      Sam Newberg March 26, 2014 at 1:09 pm #

      What’s so bad about this house, Sean?

      • Sean Hayford Oleary
        Sean Hayford Oleary March 27, 2014 at 10:56 pm #

        It just does not respond to the context that it’s in at all. The entire block is story-and-a-half bungalows and a handful of ramblers. I don’t begrudge them the right to have two full stories, but if you look at that house, you’ll note that it occupies as much visual space from the street as it possibly could. It is built to the full width of the lot (and built to the maximum allowable height for the zoning). If the desire is there for more space, build front to back, rather than building the Great Wall of Vinyl Siding.

        For comparison, see this similar-sized home, built around the same time, on the same size of lot. It has far more dimension to it, makes a friendly addition of a front porch, and does not look nearly as “shoehorned” in.

        On the same block as that second example, there is a great house that was just built that truly brings all the new-suburban amenities together — an attached garage (off the back, on the alley) and a lot of square feet — without an adverse effect on the neighbors. They made room for it all by mostly forgoing the back yard.

    • Ron March 27, 2014 at 10:55 am #

      If that’s your worse tear down then thank the stars.

  4. Matt Steele March 26, 2014 at 10:37 am #

    The problem isn’t teardowns, the problem (besides temporary construction annoyance, which happens even without teardowns) is an inconsistent form. Form-based zoning codes would help resolve that issue.

    And I love Bill’s idea… reduce teardowns in exchange for more node density such as Linden Corner.

    Any way we could implement a market-based system to price and allocate the right to tear down? That would be interesting as well.

    • Sam Newberg
      Sam Newberg March 26, 2014 at 12:22 pm #

      I have to agree with Matt. It seems like the biggest issue people seem to have, besides construction itself, is design. A form based code could address many issues and should be investigated.

  5. David March 26, 2014 at 11:10 am #

    Not only are they not doing anything to increase density…but sometimes they do the opposite – some of the new projects include demolishing two adjacent properties and building one suburban scale project, cutting density in half in terms of living units. Others are made to fit on single lots, but as you noted that selfishness brings consequence to everyone else who is already there, besides being decidedly un-green.

  6. Sam Newberg
    Sam Newberg March 26, 2014 at 12:33 pm #

    Michael, it would be helpful if you could elaborate as to what you mean by “suburban whims and fancies,” specific examples of “suburban comforts,” and “suburban sense of selfishness?” I may not disagree with you in principle (but I might) but you are throwing out a lot of labels without proper explanation. What exactly is wrong with the large house you show? What would you change to fix it and give it urban sensibility?”

    I think this problem is intractable until we can better explain what is wrong and how to fix it.

  7. Michael Roden
    Michael Roden March 26, 2014 at 1:30 pm #

    I agree that there is a lot of elaboration to do – and hopefully the city can reach a good solution. Maybe this warrants a follow-up post further describing specific goals that I feel would be good for the area. For now, I wanted to get a defense of the moratorium out there because I feel like the surprise nature of it put a bad taste in the mouth of a lot of people whom would otherwise agree with its intended purpose. Sean made a good point above about shifting terminology and I try my best not to throw out “suburban” as a blunt boogeyman (although it’s hard to resist). “Suburban” is a term that has almost as many definitions as there are people that use it, and I use it as a mentality as well as a geography and architecture. There are a million nuances inside of this controversy, and it’s hard to make just one definitive statement. However, my personal goals of increasing Minneapolis’ livability and population are not harmed by pausing the upgrading of single-family homes. I see the problem as larger and larger homes being built without the conversation of whether we want to pay as a city to upgrade the infrastructure to accommodate them without any real tangible benefits (beside increased home values, which could be fleeting). Ultimately, Southwest shouldn’t have been caught unaware, they should have already had an acceptable form-based code in place – bonus points for a plan to scale up density and commercial nodes.

  8. Mary G March 26, 2014 at 1:33 pm #

    There are lots of huge houses in Minneapolis and St. Paul (Summit Ave?). But they just don’t exist in this neighborhood. I don’t see the problem with big houses in the city. But I do agree with the comments above on trying to get the style to fit the neighborhood. I don’t think it has to be done with a small house.

    • Adam Miller
      Adam March 26, 2014 at 4:50 pm #

      There are a lot of big houses in the city that could stand some work. While I really don’t mean it as a realistic plan, it would be great if people looking for a big house would look farther east, where there are many they could buy and renovate, probably for cheaper.

  9. Sam Newberg
    Sam Newberg March 26, 2014 at 3:07 pm #

    I’m playing devil’s advocate – a lot of which is explained in my post on the matter http://joe-urban.com/archive/more-questions-than-answers-in-the-southwest-minneapolis-teardown-controversy/ – because a lot of the new homes built are quite tasteful and not too big (they are not all Trojan horses). Sometimes the new house is just as big, or wide, or tall as the existing home next door.

    The home you show as being too big is perhaps because it has a huge street-facing garage or sits on a hill so it seems too tall. Not much we can do about the hill itself, but can we regulate height? I suspect this entire street has no alley access, so garages must face the street. Perhaps we need slightly more stringent garage requirements? Can we also somehow require that roofs have a certain degree of pitch? Forbid or encourage use of attractive materials (subjective)?

    Personally, it seems to me there are some elements of scale that, if followed, will create a pretty consistent street – and that includes a front door, a number/percentage of windows facing the front, a consistent setback and ground floor elevation. I bet recently built new urbanism communities have some good guidelines.

  10. Michael Roden
    Michael Roden March 26, 2014 at 3:23 pm #

    I’m glad you made the point that not all of the new houses are bad – in fact there are some very large houses that I thought were done very tastefully. It’s definitely a situation of bad actors ruining the party. I walked the neighborhood yesterday to make sure I am not sticking my foot in my mouth and wanted so badly to just do an architectural critique of the whole neighborhood. There is a lot of interesting stuff going on there.

  11. Phillip Ford March 26, 2014 at 3:30 pm #

    I too am ambivalent about the moratorium. Taste is difficult to write into a code, but more than a few of the newer houses in my neighborhood have turned out awkward in pursuit of size. The 5-story version of Linden Corner was decidedly heavy handed. I agree that some row house projects would be a welcome addition to our housing mix.

  12. Julia Smith March 26, 2014 at 4:37 pm #

    The issue of density is a false one, related to the moratorium. No one with any knowledge in housing would argue a 1:1 exchange increases density. But if we want to add 100,000 new people to the city over the next 15 years, we need to make it attractive to all types of residents. Where are those 100,000 people going to come from? A lot of them would come from the suburbs. But this moratorium essentially says Minneapolis doesn’t want those young successful families willing to take a shot on city schools and public transportation, to move in from the suburbs. It prohibits a diverse neighborhood. Your discussions of uniform design intimate that only the folks who agree on subjective aesthetic are welcome here.

    Ultimately, what is really at the root of the controversy over the moratorium is that it completely strips away individuals’ property rights. Governments have the ability to do that, of course, but generally in land use law and within Minneapolis’s own charter, it states moratoria may only be imposed to “protect the planning process and the health, safety and welfare by regulating, restricting or prohibiting any use or development..” The planning process, sure – but also the health, safety, and welfare. AND. Not OR. Since I’ve not seen any evidence produced by the City that would rise to legal justification of imposition of a moratorium to protect all four of those factors, perhaps Mr. Roden would like to take a stab at it.

    • Linea Palmisano March 29, 2014 at 11:51 pm #

      Do you really think that the 80 construction sites in this area do not impact the health, safety, and welfare of these neighborhoods?

      Please allow me to take a stab at it…

      Two nights ago, a family of four was evacuated from their home with belongings at 11pm by firefighters two nights ago, because that day’s excavation next door caused the sandy soils to shift and impact their gas and electric connections to neighboring homes. Yes, a great combination- gas and electric of neighboring homes. Was this neighboring home something neglected or in a fragile state? Nope- it was built in 2008 (per Zillow). And this is not an “extraordinary” case- rather its the type of scenario we see in other forms quite a bit through my office.

      The health, safety and welfare of residents in neighborhoods is of paramount importance to me, and yes- it is even more important than protecting a planning study. It is evident that you feel the temporary nuisances are insignificant, and I urge you and others to take a look at the documentation in the public record for this project in the City Clerk’s office. This is intense construction in an already built environment.

      Secondarily, yes- we will not fit another 100,000 people into this city if it requires these kinds of resources and intensity, especially in areas of groundwater conflict. Which is all of these neighborhoods, and roughly 25-30% of our residential housing in our city. We need to figure that out, and it is a blind spot if people think that this is “the city’s problem”. This planning study is an opportunity to figure out how to attract growth into not just these neighborhoods but housing investment all across our city.

  13. Julia Smith March 26, 2014 at 5:01 pm #

    Actually, I’d like edit my own comment: it is possible to argue a 1:1 structure exchange does increase density, if the new home allows for more residents (bigger and/or extended families) within. Obviously we can’t say for sure this is how these newly constructed homes will be used, but it would be relatively easy to track going forward.

    However, that is a discussion that still says nothing for or against the moratorium, so I’ll end the digression, so we may keep focus on the actual issue of appropriate land use regulation.

    • Michael Roden
      Michael Roden March 26, 2014 at 7:49 pm #

      I mean, I’m not pretending to be arguing for or against the legality of the action. I suspect CM Palmisano checked with some city lawyers before doing it. What inspired me to write this is that my own motivations – i.e. density and livability – don’t clash with the moratorium. Even so, the justification for the moratorium had nothing to do with city-wide population increases. I support it partially because I had seen a lot of my like-minded peers come out against it as squashing development and I don’t really see it that way. I think it was necessary to stop everything in order to prevent the wrong kind of development from continuing. It’s foolish to think that a good solution could have been hammered out during this building bonanza. Only by halting everything can you get people’s attention enough to come to the bargaining table. I stated in my article that I want to work to make cities so attractive that the suburban land-use model can no longer compete. It’s fine with me if someone whose only goal is to maximize his square feet/budget ratio is turned off by Minneapolis’ regulations and decides to build on the fringe of Maple Grove instead. His potential neighbors will be happier to be spared that sort of mentality in their neighborhood and the city of Minneapolis will be spared the excess stress on its resources and infrastructure. The city will be better off for it in the end, and Mr. Maple Grove will eventually regret his decision as his city’s infrastructure begins to crumble because it is over-extended. As Sam pointed out, there is a lot of good new construction going on in Southwest, and there are a lot of excellent renovations. It was a few bad actors that violated the social contract of small-lot neighborhoods and ruined it for everybody. Southwest will benefit from taking this time to reflect on its priorities and its aspirations for the future.

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  1. Sunday Summary | streets.mn - March 29, 2014

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