Advocating for Good Urbanism at City Hall: 2320 Colfax

Minneapolis City Hall

I have been spending a lot of time recently thinking about how to advocate at City Hall for good urbanism. We spend a lot of time writing good posts on Streets.MN and debating in online chatrooms, but does that really move the needle at City Hall? Meanwhile, those of a preservationist mindset are always emailing City Council members and showing up to testify at public hearings.

For the past five years I have been judging high school speech, and I am always providing feedback on the ability of students to construct persuasive arguments. So I thought that I would apply these skills to being persuasive at City Hall, specifically by providing a specific example for an issue that is currently ongoing.

The demolition of 2320 Colfax is approaching another decision at City Hall this week. Most are already aware of the history of this project, but for those who are not, Scott Shaffer has an excellent post on the subject.

What is under consideration at City Hall right now is an application for demolition of an historic resource. The Heritage Preservation Commission heard this application last month and voted to deny. That decision was appealed and will be heard by the Zoning & Planning Committee of the City Council this Thursday.

Even though this often feels like a large policy argument over development and density in our city, the actual criteria that the City Council is legally bound to base their decision on is quite narrow (although oftentimes it doesn’t appear to be the case). The criteria is defined in §599.480b of the Minneapolis Code of Ordinances:

Destruction of historic resource. Before approving the demolition of a property determined to be an historic resource, the commission shall make findings that the demolition is necessary to correct an unsafe or dangerous condition on the property, or that there are no reasonable alternatives to the demolition. In determining whether reasonable alternatives exist, the commission shall consider, but not be limited to, the significance of the property, the integrity of the property and the economic value or usefulness of the existing structure, including its current use, costs of renovation and feasible alternative uses. The commission may delay a final decision for up to one hundred eighty (180) days to allow parties interested in preserving the historic resource a reasonable opportunity to act to protect it.

In other words, arguments regarding whether or not the property should have even been designated as an historic resource are irrelevant. That is bridge under the water. Arguments about the benefits of the proposed development are irrelevant. They are not legally allowed to consider that. Given this, how does someone like me advocate in support of the demolition, both by emailing Council Members and testifying at the public hearing on Thursday?

The email:

I recommend constructing an argument speaking to the criteria laid out in §599.480b. A great place to start is by reading the staff report, which recommends demolition. There are also other supporting materials to help in writing an argument, including the official application and a letter from Terra Firma Commercial Real Estate Services.

Feel free to add your own personal arguments about why the City Council should support good development. Just make sure that whatever you add is supplementary to your main argument which should be focused on §599.480b.

When you have finished writing your argument, email it this week to all members of the Zoning & Planning Committee:

  • Lisa Bender, chair (lisa.bender@minneapolismn.gov)
  • Andrew Johnson, vice-chair (andrew.johnson@minneapolismn.gov)
  • President Barb Johnson (barbara.johnson@minneapolismn.gov)
  • Kevin Reich (kevin.reich@minneapolismn.gov)
  • Abdi Warsame (abdi.warsame@minneapolismn.gov)
  • Lisa Goodman (lisa.goodman@minneapolismn.gov)

Here is the email that I sent all Committee Members as an example.

The Public Hearing: 

If you are available Thursday morning at 9:30, come to City Hall and testify at the public hearing. My recommendation for if you are going to come down is to write out your comments and practice ahead of time. You want to make sure that your comments are two minutes or less. Lisa Bender has been getting more consistent at cutting people off at 2 minutes, so you want to make all of your points before you get cut off.

This is just an example on how to advocate at City Hall on one specific issue. However, you can take these recommendations more broadly and apply them to almost any occasion where you are advocating for good urbanism. Just one final piece of advice, be mindful of the tone of your arguments.

This post was cross-posted to degersblogg.mn.

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33 Responses to Advocating for Good Urbanism at City Hall: 2320 Colfax

  1. Andrew B April 14, 2014 at 4:59 pm #

    Excellent letter.

  2. Adam Miller
    Adam April 14, 2014 at 5:06 pm #

    Good points. Let me add just a little bit of political gloss, though: politicians are sometimes swayed by things they aren’t supposed to be swayed by.

    Which I raise only to say that while focus on the criteria (a plural word, btw) in the ordinance is absolutely the way to go, you don’t have to entirely forgo other persuasive arguments. These people are not judges (and not even judges are perfect at sticking to the legally relevant). Tell them why it matters in addition to why it’s right.

    And one last point. The personal works really well in citizen activism. How will the policy you want changed help you? How does the existing policy harm you? Why do you care? (Apologies if that’s obvious).

    Finally, do not follow the horrible writing style of this comment.

    • Andrew Degerstrom
      Andrew Degerstrom April 14, 2014 at 6:52 pm #

      That’s why I say feel free to add your own personal arguments as long as they’re supplemental to the argument based off of 599.480b.

  3. Adam April 15, 2014 at 8:57 am #

    Be sure to tell the council members that you support luxury apartments being built in THIS location because you don’t want to have to live near ethnic minorities where open land is readily available. Explain that you are exercising your white privilege to keep minorities out, they can live somewhere else just like the people this project will displace. Supporters of the new development are purely racist.

    • Scott Shaffer
      Scott Shaffer April 15, 2014 at 9:08 am #

      Do you understand any of the arguments made in this article? Why don’t you try to respond to one or two of them, instead of trying to reduce this disagreement to tribal conflict between Good People and Bad People?

    • Matt Steele April 15, 2014 at 9:13 am #

      I assume using your last name in your post would leave you too open to ridicule?

    • Adam Miller
      Adam April 15, 2014 at 10:57 am #

      You could at least do me the courtesy of using a different screen name.

    • John Edwards
      John Edwards April 15, 2014 at 3:57 pm #

      What about an ethnic minority who supports this development? Would she be like the Herman Cain of local development politics? Keep in mind she has never worked in the pizza industry. (Also: some of my best friends are ethnic minorities).

  4. Andrew Degerstrom
    Andrew Degerstrom April 15, 2014 at 4:15 pm #

    Irrelevant to the question of demolition, according to 599.480b, but this is why Urbanists support good development, even if the units aren’t planned to be “affordable:”

    http://www.vox.com/2014/4/15/5615680/seriously-increasing-housing-supply-increases-affordability

  5. Cadillac Kolstad April 15, 2014 at 6:04 pm #

    I still have not seen a convincing argument explaining why this demolition is “good urbanism”. Attacking historic minded people under this justification is creating a backlash against “density” in general. I would suggest being mindful of this.
    People say this is about renters but it destroys a number of more affordable housing units. Historic preservation is also a component of “good urbanism”.
    Also the appeals can look at a much broader perspective than the preservation code.
    From reading the code provided it seems that the case has been made. The Preservation Commission primarily protects exteriors and the exteriors of this building is in good shape.
    Adding these units in this location does not constitute a “serious increase” in housing units” it will add about 25 units.
    I would also point out that Mr Shaffer, who wrote the article about this issue also wrote in another post that the parks should sell some land for apartment development. This put a lot into perspective for me.
    Why is there not an equal outrage from these authors at some of the low density stuff going in on Hennepin avenue? The county built a new one story library on lagoon and lake but so many of these pages are dedicated to attacking preservation. There are numerous vacant lots in Minneapolis just waiting for development. At Franklin and Park where the city ordered demolition of a large old house that Nicole Curtis was trying to buy, move and rehab, the parcel is still vacant and development would be welcome at that location. The land is already clear and has been vacant for almost a year.
    My most important point is that just because someone is interested in preservation does not make them anti urban as is continually implied by many of the posters.
    Thanks!

    • Scott Shaffer
      Scott Shaffer April 16, 2014 at 8:52 am #

      “I would also point out that Mr Shaffer, who wrote the article about this issue also wrote in another post that the parks should sell some land for apartment development. This put a lot into perspective for me.”

      To be clear, I wrote that Minneapolis devotes too much public land and resources to a declining sport that’s primarily popular with rich white folks (golf). It’s inefficient and immoral. I still think that.

      This apartment building is good urbanism because it would allow more people to live in a walkable part of the city. These people would emit less carbon in their day-to-day transportation than most people in the city. More foot traffic would be good for the local businesses. More property tax revenue from the apartment building would ease the tax burden on others.

      But basically, I think people should be allowed to live where they want. A lot of people want to live at 24th and Colfax, and nothing in the zoning code, state law, or federal law prevents an energy-efficient mid-rise apartment building there. If we don’t allow the new building, the people will still move into the neighborhood, but they’ll bid up the rents of nearby apartments, resulting in the displacement of people with lower income. I think that’s a bad thing.

      • Cadillac Kolstad April 19, 2014 at 6:35 pm #

        This project results in the displacement of people with lower incomes, how can you support it if you think that is a bad thing?

        • Nathanael April 22, 2014 at 10:38 pm #

          Prove it. I say you’re wrong.

          People with lower incomes are being displaced anyway, because the rooming house operator is shutting it down anyway.

          I say that the *real* problem is that new rooming houses are prohibited by the zoning laws. Legalize new rooming houses.

          • Cadillac Kolstad April 23, 2014 at 6:01 pm #

            I agree that the restrictions on rooming houses should be lifted.
            It is a myth that the only result from preservation would be closing the rooming house. Since the publicity the property has been off the market. There are several investors interested in continuing the rooming house but since it is not for sale that is not able to be explored.
            My point is simply that people arguing this is going to help keep rents reasonable is another myth and has no basis in evidence. All the evidence points to the opposite.

    • Adam Miller
      Adam April 16, 2014 at 10:27 am #

      Is the number of new housing units greater than the number of units “destroyed?” If yes, that’s increasing housing supply and the only way to keep rents down in the area.

      • Sam Newberg
        Sam Newberg April 16, 2014 at 2:28 pm #

        Yes, 45 units would replace 20 or so existing.

    • Alex Cecchini
      Alex Cecchini April 16, 2014 at 4:41 pm #

      I think many here would be the first to criticize government development as oftentimes under-utilizing space. This proposal, for example, has a net unit density roughly equivalent to the Horn Towers, with far less impact and much better relation to the street. Typically, large public institutions like libraries don’t have additional development, but I’d certainly be open to the city selling air rights when new structures are on prominent corners like the new Walker Library.

      I think taking a step back and analyzing the posts here is worthwhile. I don’t see anyone attacking preservation, but rather simply questioning the value of preservation (societal and environmental) vs positive impacts from new, more intense development (net environmental impact reduction & overall housing supply price impacts)

      The environmental argument against demolition is sound, but not when additional units and/or mixing of uses are considered. Particularly in an area where already today only 50% of residents commute to work by car (compared to where the net gain of 25 units might otherwise be built – like EP or Plymouth for example). More people create a virtuous cycle (more bicyclers make others feel safer, create a better market for transit improvements, incentivize business owners to locate nearby in new sites, etc). The design of the building itself encourages walking via separate sidewalk entrances to individual units (easiest way to get out), has a setback past the 3rd level, hides almost all its parking, provides easy bike parking, and has many balconies to encourage public/private mixing of space – all reasons why this project is good urbanism.

      Can we also agree that, as much as we’d like it to be, Franklin and Park is not 24th and Colfax from a desirability standpoint? That there are unintended consequences to the local government using zoning and historic preservation to force development to areas of the city the market wouldn’t otherwise target? That perhaps the city should focus on improving its own infrastructure (better sidewalks, parks, calmer streets, better transit) in areas currently under-utilized?

      Speaking of supply, doubling the unit density (with a few 2 BR units to boot) on 3 regular city parcels of land definitely constitutes a fairly substantial increase in housing supply, particularly when it only requires 3.5 stories to do so.

      • Cadillac Kolstad April 19, 2014 at 6:40 pm #

        So Alex, adding 25 units of housing to a city with about 180,000 units of housing is a substantial increase? I think it is a shift of .0138 % in # of Minneapolis housing units.
        thanks!

      • Cadillac Kolstad May 3, 2014 at 3:44 pm #

        There was a proposal for mixed use at Walker Library – I knew it!!! And by none other than Lander group!! 9 years ago! This would have been much better than what was eventually built.
        http://www.ci.minneapolis.mn.us/www/groups/public/@cped/documents/webcontent/convert_276100.pdf
        Here is an example of something I could really support. Density and mixed use at the library already planned for redevelopment.
        This was a really good thoughtful plan.
        To bad it didn’t get built.
        Schools libraries and other public buildings are still allowed to have really bad land use. This needs to change.

      • Cadillac Kolstad May 3, 2014 at 3:45 pm #

        There was a proposal for mixed use at Walker Library – I knew it!!! And by none other than Lander group!! 9 years ago! This would have been much better than what was eventually built.
        http://www.ci.minneapolis.mn.us/www/groups/public/@cped/documents/webcontent/convert_276100.pdf
        Here is an example of something I could really support. Density and mixed use at the library already planned for redevelopment.
        This was a really good thoughtful plan.
        To bad it didn’t get built.
        Schools, libraries and other public buildings are still allowed to have really bad land use. This needs to change.

  6. Casey April 16, 2014 at 2:39 pm #

    In real estate economics the supply/demand ratio is not as easy as “more units, lower rents”

    BASIC REAL ESTATE ECONOMICS
    (http://isites.harvard.edu/fs/docs/icb.topic1143374.files/Rena__Chap%202.pdf)

    Due to frequent exogenous demand shocks and slow adjustment processes, real estate
    markets are in disequilibrium more than often. Within this context, when analyzing real
    estate markets at a given point in time it is important to assess the state and degree of
    disequilibrium that may be prevailing in the market and its implications regarding future
    movements in rents and vacancy rates. Simplistic methodologies used to gain insights with
    respect to a market’s state of disequilibrium include examination of the difference between
    construction and absorption, as well as analysis of vacancy rate trends, while more advanced
    methodologies include comparison of the nominal vacancy rate to the market’s structural
    vacancy rate and/or comparison of the prevailing rent to the market’s equilibrium rent.

    • Alex Cecchini
      Alex Cecchini April 16, 2014 at 4:16 pm #

      I’m confused, are you advocating we abandon basic long-run economics’ effect on housing prices by stating that it’s not just as easy as “more units = lower rents?” It could definitely be boiled down to “not more units = not lower rents,” though, right? Regardless, the preceding paragraph in the summary states:

      “Real estate price adjustments are very slow due a host of inefficiencies that stem largely from three major factors: a) information inefficiencies, b) long-term rental contacts that hinder swift rental and demand adjustments, and c) long construction lags that force very
      slow supply adjustments. The expanded stock-flow model that includes vacancies can help understand and simulate short-run movements of real estate markets in response to
      exogenous shocks.”

      To me, this is the more important takeaway – that price adjustments are long-term, and to me the implication is that not allowing the market to do its thing now means long-term, potentially tough to see/predict, price increases overall.

      However, inefficiencies in the market outlined by the 3 points are less and less relevant:
      a) The internet. Seriously, how much more power do renters have now than 20 years ago? Same with home purchasers. Low cost of entry for advertising spaces also keeps the bottom end healthy (if supply was allowed to enter this sector…).
      b) I’m curious how long the average rental contract is in the Wedge. I’m vaguely aware that most new apartments going in are 1 year leases, most of them month-to-month after that. Besides, isn’t this a common complaint among neighborhood homeowners arguing against new apartments – they are short-term residents without a stake in the neighborhood?
      c) How long would construction lag demand spikes with less red tape at City Hall? How about addition to supply in a decentralized way (garage & garden apartments, etc). Large construction does require financing, etc that takes a while. Smaller dev not so much.

  7. Casey April 17, 2014 at 10:45 am #

    “are you advocating we abandon basic long-run economics’ effect on housing prices”

    I am stating proven basic real estate economics. I only posted the information as real estate economics are a bit more complicated that econ 101 and that could be more useful to consider. It would interesting to consider a circumstance where rental costs have decreased in a metro setting due to new construction but I have yet to see the data to support that hypothesis.

    • Alex Cecchini
      Alex Cecchini April 17, 2014 at 11:30 am #

      I’m not sure how what you posted even supports the idea that long-run, prices won’t rise faster if supply is limited. And we’re not just talking metro-wide, we’re talking specifically about extremely high-demand areas like The Wedge. And again, it very well may be that aggregate rental prices still increase with new construction coming online. The question is: will the aggregate increase be more or less than without those units? What are the price effects to nearby neighborhoods when supply is capped in the Wedge?

      But: http://www.duprescott.com/productsservices/articleinfo.cfm?ArticleId=609

      Pretty clear that higher vacancy rates (at least a partial result of waves of new construction units – see the next chart) have coincided with lower annual rental rate increases (only for units older than 1 year), with peaks in new construction even seeing negative rent increases (price drops).

      There’s a reason the Bay Area is extremely expensive and Houston is extremely cheap. One has more or less limited new housing stock in desirable (near jobs or natural amenities) areas for decades while the other has allowed hundreds of thousands of greenfield units. The latter just happens to come with billions in debt for TxDOT and super high pollution.

  8. Casey April 17, 2014 at 12:42 pm #

    I was not aware that there could be positions about a proven economic formula, I guess I stand corrected.

    From your article, which does indeed prove the economic formulas proven in the Harvard article-
    “New construction rents for more. That distorts rent trends. Excluding the new units that opened in the past year, rents still posted a healthy 3.7% increase.

    There were some big rent increases in a few neighborhoods. But a lot of the increase is due to new units opening there.”

    • Matt Steele April 17, 2014 at 12:54 pm #

      It says it distorts rent trends, but does it cause a change in existing rents? It doesn’t say. Clearly the market is demanding more luxury rentals in prime neighborhoods, so people are happy to pay more for newer units with more amenities. And clearly rents are still increasing on the whole. But that does not imply a causal relationship between rents on net-new units and average rents for an area.

      Nor does it counter basic market economics which would say that, in an area where demand is increasing, increasing supply alongside increasing equilibrium prices means there’s still a shortage of units.

      • Alex Cecchini
        Alex Cecchini April 18, 2014 at 12:12 pm #

        Not to mention that quote is only from the most recent wave, with Seattle currently being one of the hottest rental markets in the country with an improving local urban economy and draw for millennials (now with jobs!) to live close-in. In previous waves, annual rent change did indeed dip negative following large numbers of units hitting the market (and subsequent vacancy rates increasing).

        I guess we disagree that the paper you listed proves or takes a formula that long-term rents/prices don’t increase if supply is restricted. It simply states the differences and minutiae of the real estate market vs. basic supply/demand concepts, with some major factors leading to much slower reactions of price relative to both supply and demand (ie 1,000 new units doesn’t automatically change the equilibrium price).

  9. Cadillac Kolstad April 19, 2014 at 6:32 pm #

    This project will cause rents to increase by at least 20% per individual and 120% per unit at this address.
    axcess will be even more limited as security deposit will increase by 120% per unit.

    What are these boarders supposed to do in the demolition to achieve a better city model?

    Any arguments this is about preserving rental affordability is nonsense. In popular areas the only method I have ever seen that preserves this long term is non-profit or govt. owned housing, with regulated rents.
    Most private development leads to increasing costs for a given area.

    • Cedar April 19, 2014 at 10:01 pm #

      But isn’t part of the problem that there are no buyers willing to purchase it and operate it as a rooming house? I think the conversation would be very different if there was a buyer in the wings willing to purchase the house for that purpose.

      I don’t know enough about Minneapolis rental laws, but in situations like this it would be nice if tenants were given financial assistance to help with their relocation. When we lived in San Francisco (which is obviously a much more complicated rental situation, for better or for worse) I figured out that if our landlords had wanted to get rid of us they’d have had to pay our family something like $18k for the privilege.

      • Cadillac Kolstad April 23, 2014 at 6:03 pm #

        There are investors interested in continuing the rooming house.

    • Nathanael April 22, 2014 at 10:42 pm #

      The problem is that the rooming house is being shut down. It will be shut down REGARDLESS of whether the building is demolished, because the owner doesn’t feel able to run it any more, and nobody else wants to try to operate this particular dilapidated property as a low-rent rooming house.

      If the building is retained, the rooming house will be shut down. The building will either sit vacant, or be converted back into a luxury single-family home.

      You need to campaign to make it legal for more rooming houses to open. Zoning laws make it very hard to open new rooming houses.

      • Cadillac Kolstad April 23, 2014 at 6:23 pm #

        Using rhetoric like “dilapidated” to imply that historic properties are falling apart is a common theme for demolition advocates. The same thing happened last fall on West Bank, a well maintained historic building was up for appeal after being protected at HPC. The building had fresh tuckpointing, new windows, and was rated as being in good shape in official city documents. Development advocates kept saying it was “dilapidated” “run down” and “falling apart”.
        This is from the listing for 2320 colfax in 2010 on loopnet. It hardly reads as dilapidated, infact sounds like is in good shape!!!!!!!!

        ” there has been almost $200,000. in major improvements…
        .”the halls were fire and sound proofed the doors are fire doors with metal jams. A central alarm system with pull station and heat sensor in the basement, exit signs with battery backup, all the rooms have their own doorbells and locking mailboxes, all the wiring and plumbing was replaced and brought up to code, the boiler was replaced. New roof, siding, chimney work and water main.”

        There are other investors interested in the rooming house. To say “nobody is interested” is extremely presumptuous.
        It is unfortunate that the advocates for demolition must resort to perpetuating falsehoods and myths.

  10. Cadillac Kolstad April 23, 2014 at 6:40 pm #

    Advocating for “good urbanism” would be an examination of housing, density businesses and zoning codes throughout the city.

    Focusing on new policies that promote density and stability such as, eliminating the limits on how many unrelated people can live in a unit, ADU’s, allowing expansion into attics and basements, easing up restrictions on commercial uses of property.

    Changes are needed creating a framework where any property owner could do their part to add housing units. Big developers building apartment blocks are not the only way to add density. The current restrictive policies add to the profitability of this model.

    Good urbanism is not demolishing historic existing buildings to facilitate cramming development into areas that already have very high density, are very walkable, and already exhibit good urban settings.

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