How the City of Minneapolis Actually Influences Building Design

The following City staff counterpoint is a response to Tom Fisher’s recent article, “Enough visual interest, already!” The article was published online February 13, 2015, and appeared in print the following day. This counterpoint is co-authored by Jason Wittenberg, the Manager of Land Use, Design and Preservation for the City of Minneapolis and Kjersti Monson, the Director of Long Range Planning for the City of Minneapolis.

The center of our region is booming again. The City of Minneapolis issued permits for construction valued at more than $2 billion in 2014. A substantial portion of that value results from the approval of more than 2,000 new housing units within the city’s boundaries. Consistent with the City’s vision for growth, Minneapolis has welcomed a net population increase of more than 20,000 people since the 2010 census. People are enthusiastic about the future of this great city.

The City’s vision for the future is distinctly urban, with a plan to add a thriving mix of uses—including thousands of additional residents and jobs—downtown and in areas well-served by a variety of transportation options. Regulation of this growth is the subject of significant debate. For every new residential or mixed use building that rises along our transit corridors, there are a range of opinions about issues such as building design and scale. Unfortunately, Tom Fisher’s recent article did little to inform people about how the City of Minneapolis influences the design of new development. A simple phone conversation between the author and a Minneapolis city planner could have provided important clarity.

Building materials

A recently-built apartment building in Uptown

Fisher tells of a friend who asked why so many new apartment buildings “look so ugly.” The author confidently then states that the source of the problem is a City document entitled “Guide to Exterior Building Materials and Walls.” There is one major problem with this accusation: not a single building has been both approved and completed since the City started using this document less than a year ago. In fact, these guidelines were actually a response to the kinds of buildings that Fisher seems to be complaining about.

We appreciate the creativity of many of our local architects and developers. However, in some cases this creativity has resulted in buildings with six or more primary materials on a single building wall. We’re asking for no more than three. Furthermore, because we have serious concerns that some of these materials are not going to age well, we now suggest reasonable limits on certain materials. (Interestingly, prior to enacting our guidelines, some developers asked us why we allowed fellow developers to use lesser-quality building materials.) Contrary to the suggestion that a mish-mash of materials has been mandated by the City, our staff worked with our City Planning Commission (which includes award-winning architects) and several design firms and developers to essentially say, “Please simplify! Give us a reasonably simple palette of durable materials that will add lasting value to Minneapolis.” Most in the design community seem to have welcomed this guidance.

Architects should feel free to use one or two high-quality materials when designing buildings in Minneapolis. Indeed, we can think of wonderful new buildings that have done just that. Building walls must at least include windows and entrances facing streets. And on walls facing neighboring properties? If the building doesn’t include windows, then massive blank walls must be broken-up with recesses/projections or other features, which MAY include a change in materials. We argue that these principles are essential to building a great city. We’re aware of very few in the local design community who disagree.

North Loop construction

A building under construction in the North Loop

So, what does the City mean when it calls for building walls with “visual interest?” Well, it doesn’t take long to track down countless examples of blank, featureless walls facing public sidewalks and unlucky neighbors. Such designs are the enemy of the walkable urbanism that we strive for. They resulted from a time when the city basically gave the design community and developers the virtually unlimited autonomy that Fisher suggests we embrace today.

It’s worth noting that buildings constructed in any given era tend to include similar materials and features. Developers and designers use materials that are popular and economically feasible at the time.  Further, there are many competing interests when it comes to the regulation of development. Some think the City provides too much leeway, approving everything proposed by architects and their clients. Others believe the City is too heavy-handed regarding development. Minneapolis regulates the things that we believe are essential to creating urban places that will endure, including pedestrian and vehicle access, height, the placement of the building on a property and, yes, the features of building walls. Designated historic districts provide additional design guidance, striving for respect of the past while discouraging new buildings that create a false sense of history.

Minneapolis employs talented city planners who appreciate and respect the local design community. We welcome an ongoing dialogue about the role of land use and design regulations. And we’ll continue to strive to provide clear guidance about the City’s rules and expectations while allowing and encouraging creativity. We’re thrilled that so many people are choosing to invest in Minneapolis and we think that reasonable regulatory standards are critical to ensuring that the city is place that is worthy of that investment for many years into the future.

Jason Wittenberg

About Jason Wittenberg

Jason Wittenberg, AICP, is the Manager of Land Use, Design and Preservation for the City of Minneapolis, where he has worked for the Community Planning & Economic Development Department since 1998. He holds a Master of Urban Planning and Policy degree from the University of Illinois at Chicago and a B.A. in Geography from the University of Minnesota.