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.

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19 Responses to How the City of Minneapolis Actually Influences Building Design

  1. Matthias Leyrer
    Matthias Leyrer February 24, 2015 at 8:17 am #

    This is a good article. Wonder if Mankato has adopted similar rules.

  2. Matt Steele February 24, 2015 at 9:12 am #

    Great article, which highlights the value of Streets.MN as a place for dialog.

    My question resulting from this: From the perspective of those administering and formulating code for the city, would a form-based code give developers of these projects more leeway to get time-tested materials and positive interaction with the public realm? While it’s not clearly the case most of the time, I’m concerned if there are instances where meeting well-intentioned, yet possibly less important, land use requirements come at the expense of enduring materials and urbanism. This could happen two ways: Either a project budget is constrained so good urbanism is sacrificed, or the project is shelved altogether and we see less enduring, urban development than the market would otherwise bear.

  3. Joe February 24, 2015 at 10:24 am #

    In anticipation of all the comments on the subject – boy do we all need a come to jesus meeting on “form-based” codes. The City of Minneapolis has a hybrid zoning ordinance with elements of euclidean, performance, negotiated, and form-based zoning (here’s a nice brief summary from Austin, TX – http://www.austintexas.gov/sites/default/files/files/Planning/CodeNEXT/code101_typesofzoning.pdf). The use of the term “form-based” is so often to me a red herring. Let’s concretely define the problem, talk about all possible solutions to that problem, and then settle on which solution makes the most sense. This is why a public dialogue is important, and streets.mn could be one place for that to occur. Unfortunately when I’ve pointed out to folks the need for this rational approach to problem solving (instead of jumping straight to a solution without a concretely defined problem), the dialogue often stops, because this doesn’t allow for continued use of the “form-based” code mantra.

    Now don’t get me wrong, adding more form-based elements to the Minneapolis Zoning ordinance may be the way to go. Great, I’m all for it! But let’s stop using the term every time we see something development related that we don’t like. Let’s ask our City Planners and elected/appointed officials – “what does the current zoning ordinance say about this issue?” “Is this a problem that occurs frequently?” “What are the ways in which we could address this issue?”

    I work here with some of the most talented and brilliant people I have ever met, and they all care deeply about the future of the City of Minneapolis. You take most of the public dialogue and criticism with a grain of salt, it comes with the territory. However, I encourage folks to think about the tone with which they engage in public discourse, there are ways to make it easier for everyone. Mr Fischer unfortunately chose an unnecessarily combative stance – one that is not uncommon to find on places like streets.mn. It’s understandable, people are incredibly and rightfully passionate about this stuff! But please please don’t assume that City staff hasn’t already thought about all this, because honestly, almost none of this is new to us (I mean, it’s our job, yeah?). What we need is a better way to collaborate with and empower the public to advocate for sensible solutions to the problems we face.

    So here it is: I WANT TO MEET WITH PEOPLE WHO POST HERE. Pick a Saturday or Sunday where we can spend a few hours documenting the problems that people think we are facing – we’ll talk about how the City process currently works in that regard, and we’ll brainstorm some things that you think the City can do to address those problems. This will not in any way be me serving in an official capacity as a City employee, it will be on my own free time, and the output of this interaction will simply be informational for both of us. Only one rule: we have a swear jar of sorts – any time someone says “form-based” code you have to donate $1 to streets.mn.

    • Sam Newberg
      Sam Newberg February 24, 2015 at 10:28 am #

      I very much support this idea.

    • Matt Steele February 24, 2015 at 12:09 pm #

      Good point, and yes let’s meet and discuss. Here’s why I’m so anti-use based code… It doesn’t seem like it’s intended to deal with actual problems. It deals with land uses with perceived (or real) neighborly impacts, rather than the impacts themselves. I could care less if there’s light manufacturing going on in the building down the block from me. Or an office in someone’s home with a half dozen employees. Or whatever… I think most of us care about what the impacts of those land uses are, not the land uses themselves. That’s why it seems so problematic to regulate a land use.

      An example that I always come back to: I’ve been in plenty of bands around town, and I used to pitch our group to different bars and restaurants where I thought we’d be a good fit. But the number one reason why I heard no is that their licensing wouldn’t allow it. We regulate the number of musicians on stage, if they can be amplified, and what sort of act they can be based on liquor license and subsequently based on use-based zoning (C2, etc). But, really, who cares about how many musicians are on stage and if they’re amplified or not? It is irrelevant. The thing that matters is if noticeable music, rowdy crowds, and other environmental factors spill over outside the establishment.

    • Jeremy Bergerson February 24, 2015 at 3:06 pm #

      That sounds outstanding. I’d love to attend.

      That said, I am in the category of folks who are largely disappointed by the new construction in my home city. Having moved back here from Chicago, where buildings have super solid concrete walls and floors, which you can’t really hear your neighbors through, I’m kind of embarrassed by all the drywall and 2″x6″-based building going up. Also, even the new buildings in Chicago look classy, like they belong in their setting: brick-exterior, cinder blocks at the base, a mansard roof. It all looks very substantial. This is in striking contrast to the assemblage of multicolored rectangles that comprise the majority of our new buildings.

      Plus, I’d like to know what “discouraging new buildings that create a false sense of history” means.

      • Jason Wittenberg
        Jason Wittenberg February 24, 2015 at 9:30 pm #

        Jeremy–Regarding your last question about “false sense of history,” new construction in historic districts should not be designed to appear as though it is 100 years old. A building constructed in 2015 should appear to be a building constructed in 2015 while hopefully respecting many of the key features that are important in the district. The Humboldt Lofts building is an example of new construction that achieved this masterfully, in my opinion.

        • Jeremy Bergerson February 25, 2015 at 9:04 am #

          Thanks for the clarification. In light of that regulation, I would agree with you on the Humboldt Lofts. A very fine building.

          As someone who happens to like buildings in the style of 100 years ago, that stricture kind of bums be out, because I cannot imagine what harm would come of building in that style. Chicago pulls it off without the city looking like an architectural sham, why couldn’t that work here? I mean, yes, Santa Fe seems silly with all its adobe retrograde buildings, but brick structures? Seems pretty essentially Minneapolitan to me. And hard to mess up.

          Point being, it seems that the proportion of buildings that succeed as Humboldt does is low, consequently most of what one comes across are the less thoughtfully designed structures. That’s my impression, at least. But still, if there are always going to be developers who build less thoughtfully, why not just give them recourse to a template that’s hard to botch?

          I realize these are esthetic judgments. My two cents, nonetheless.

          • Matt Steele February 25, 2015 at 3:48 pm #

            I agree with this. I’d say 90% of what made a building great a century ago applies just as much today, at least the exterior and public realm. If our buildings from a century ago work so great, what’s so wrong with replicating them? Not faux history mind you, but basic urban buildings.

            There’s actually a whole movement, largely a crossover with New Urbanists, to try and go back to many of these elements. Hope For Architecture, the Kunstlerites, etc. I hope the virtues of traditional buildings aren’t summarily dismissed because they’re more 1915 than 2015. Maybe 1915 is more timeless.

            I concede that’s not Jason’s point, but I wanted to express the same concern as Jeremy.

        • Faith February 25, 2015 at 12:03 pm #

          Let’s also analyze this statement a bit: “new construction in historic districts should not be designed to appear as though it is 100 years old.” This is a design opinion often repeated at our local school of architecture. However, it is not the only option available.

          What was done 100 years ago? Mostly some nice brick work on a façade, stone lintels, a cornice and inset windows. Why should we not let architects experiment with these design elements if they so choose? I don’t know who designed the Chase Bank Building in downtown Fort Worth but it was built in 2002 and has a nice mix of historic elements: http://sundancesquaremanagement.com/chase-bank-building/

          Interestingly, in Europe the opposite approach is taken. New construction in historic districts is designed and built the same way it would have been had it been done 100 years ago (or more, depending on the era)

          • Jeremy B February 25, 2015 at 1:11 pm #

            I wholly concur with everything you just wrote, Faith. And I think the European approach is wise and helps foster a sense of place and tradition.

          • Adam Miller
            Adam Miller February 25, 2015 at 3:16 pm #

            I’m confused. Are there rules that don’t allow a brick facade, stone lintels, a cornice and inset windows?

            • Jason Wittenberg
              Jason Wittenberg February 25, 2015 at 4:02 pm #

              No, Adam, there are no such rules. Here is language from the recently adopted St. Anthony Falls Historic District Design Guidelines: “In order to assure that historic resources are appreciated as authentic contributors in the district, it is important that a new building be distinguishable from them while also remaining compatible with the context.”

              This concept is full of nuance, for sure. And these are guidelines. But this concept isn’t unique to Minneapolis. Whether we agree with it or not, this is generally the philosophy of preservationists, at least in the U.S. And I’d suggest that there are many, many instances of very modern architecture in historic contexts in Europe.

              I’m a little surprised that this minor point in the article is generating this much discussion!!! Anyway, if you’d like to read more about this principle with the context of the St. Anthony Falls Area, simply as an example, start reading on p. 101 of the guidelines: http://www.minneapolismn.gov/www/groups/public/@cped/documents/webcontent/convert_255677.pdf

    • Jim February 25, 2015 at 11:17 am #

      I would love to be a part of the discussion in person. I’m don’t post comments often because I find most of the discussions about code, especially form based, on here to be academic. Few people are actually forced to deal with the realities of implementing a code that can get votes to pass a council. There’s a lot of talking past each other going on usually.

      The purpose of that handout from Austin is to basically show how most big cities have a mess of a system. It was an outreach tool to just get people oriented to what they currently have so they can draw parallels to something new that isn’t that. The geeks on here can follow all that, but to normal folks just trying to get something done, all the different elements make just a confusing mess. I was in Austin 3 weeks ago, talking to their planning staff in the middle of trying to come up with a new code. They are trying to UNDO their hybridized system because it doesn’t work. That should tell us something.

      It’s also structural issue within our fiefdom council power structure and the long standing lack of direction within the various iterations of CPED’s (and predecessors) org structure over the last 20 years. Some councilpersons don’t want to give up their power broker status, which really messes with planning (good bad and indifferent). When your planning director reports to 14 bosses, also hard to get solid direction. All that has to get navigated when thinking about any different code system, these ideas don’t exist in a vacuum.

      I’d like to tackle the questions with all that in play.

  4. Penny Price February 24, 2015 at 1:12 pm #

    I wish the City of Mpls would spend more time figuring out how to remove ordinances that are currently in place and which needn’t be in the mix, mucking up the system. How to remove fees and forms, or at least combine them. How to reduce the number of gov’t approvals “required” to get to the end of any given project related in any way to real estate. Spend less time thinking up more rules, and more time figuring out how to make it easy for people to live, work, and play in Minneapolis.

  5. Sam February 24, 2015 at 4:43 pm #

    I may be one of the few that loves the design of all the new apartment buildings. New and different is a good thing!! Although the questions about how these buildings will hold up is very legitimate. Some of the older new buildings are already showing their age moreso than older old buildings.

  6. Jim February 25, 2015 at 10:57 am #

    I’d like to be involved in this in person dialogue as well. I’ve carefully been trying to understand the nuances of our code over the last few years since I arrived, comparing that with other major American cities I’ve done planning and design work. In my experience in actually writing, implementing and designing buildings to FBCs outside this region, I find the discussions about them here to be theoretical explorations. Outside of some work in St. Louis Park and St. Paul (not full fledged or complete), no one has done them.

    Based on that experience, which includes talking to staff across CPED, there are two major achilles heels to our current code, whatever you want to call its format:

    1. We still can’t stop, by-right, bad auto-oriented buildings from happening – aka the new CVS at 54th and Lyndale. A by-right disaster.

    2. We are still obsessed over Use charts (because we have a code extremely nuanced at separating uses) and their related parking charts. I know there have been a lot of things done to soften the blow, especially in community corridors, but there are a lot of holes still.
    —Recently at Development Services…I overhead a lady explain in great detail how large her retail product shelf at her yoga studio was going to be….because that was driving whether or not she got kicked into the next parking requirement threshold from studio to retail store. Really???? on a 1000 sf storefont?

    Because of these things, no matter how talented our staff is, we can’t reliably expect to get buildings with an intensity of form that match the quality of what was built without a zoning code a 100 years ago. The default output of our zoning code outside of our downtown district still allows and often encourages buildings with parking lots out front or to the side. It is still auto-oriented.

    That’s how I measure if our current code works – what is the default building produced.

    Despite all the well intentioned and actually quite effective patches we’ve put in place over the last 20 years, auto-oriented site plans are allowed by right. I know the pain felt by our principal planners when a bad building gets approved. They hate some of these projects. But they are helpless, because the DNA of our code is still rooted in the 1960s, a time where we were looking for lots of room to store cars.

    Heck, at Lake/Nicollet, the code allows by right, someone to build a drive thru lane on a commercial building. Just what we need, on one of busiest transit corridors in the region – a drive thru lane pulling out in front of a future Nicollet Streetcar. Not impossible, unfortunately. So. Fail.

    We’ve allowed the good to be legal again. A tremendous accomplishment. That doesn’t make up for the bad stuff still getting through. Let’s find a way to rework the base assumptions of our land code so that we by-right get the desired result right out of the gate. Let’s have Vision Zero for buildings – no auto oriented site plans allowed. By the way, the obstructions to this are political, not from CPED. Don’t shoot the messenger.

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