Sensible Infill Development Blocked by Zoning in Minneapolis

My bike commute sometimes takes me past the corner of 38th Street and Park Avenue. 38th, a growing commercial corridor witnessing a huge renaissance, can shoulder more housing density for our growing city.

Missing Middle Housing Transect Diagram

Missing Middle Housing in the Transect, from Opticos Design

Earlier this year, there was a house fire on the northwest corner of this intersection that destroyed a single family home. It is now a vacant lot. This seems like a prime opportunity for some “missing middle housing” that our city hasn’t seen much of, right? Especially since it’s 300 feet from a high-frequency Route 5 bus on Chicago, and right on the Route 23 (Future Route 38 if we get our way). A four- or six-plex oriented to 38th Street would work great, and maybe there could even be a storefront worked in.

3748 Park Ave Zoning

Zoning around 38th and Park. From “How Minneapolis is Zoned” by Alan Palazzolo/MinnPost

Unfortunately, this parcel is zoned R1A. The opposite corner is C1, and there are over four blocks of R4/R5 east of Portland. This parcel is zoned R1A because there was already a single family home on a 40 foot lot, not because we thought about what type of land use we ought to allow by right on such an important corner.

And the previous use wasn’t even allowed, by right, on the property. Per City records and news accounts, there were actually two dwellings on the parcel.

There’s a real estate sign on the vacant lot as of this morning. The lot has recently been listed for $37,500, but a sale has not been registered with the county. And the MLS listing boasts, “Come build your dream home in the heart of south Minneapolis!” Probably because a single family home, less dense than what existed prior to this fire, is all that can be built by right.

We need to see significant reform of our use-baked-in-amber-based zoning code if we want to see Minneapolis develop into a place that can accommodate everyone who wants to live here. We’ve made great progress–parking reform, accessory dwelling legalization, and so on–but there’s still more work to do. Let’s overhaul our comprehensive plan before it strangles our future.

21 thoughts on “Sensible Infill Development Blocked by Zoning in Minneapolis

  1. Justin

    Matt, my bike commute takes me the same way. It would be great to see more density and development right there. That whole corridor could boom if we let it.

  2. Sean Hayford OlearySean Hayford Oleary

    I guess I’m curious what you think success would look like here. Allow cluster developments on an SFH lot? Have some overlay along commercial streets like 38th to allow corner stores? Or allow them anywhere?

    1. Matt SteeleMatt Steele Post author

      There are many things which could look like success here. But first, I want to challenge your assumptions. Why is this a “SFH lot”? It looks like a 40×125 corner lot to me. Other than the arbitrary R1A zoning, there’s nothing that makes this a SFH lot more than any other kind of lot.

      After posting this to Small Developers/Builders, John Anderson of Anderson/Kim replied with architect David Kim’s design. It’s a 20×80′ two story rectangle that could be built deeper depending on setback needs from 38th St and from the adjoining SFH on Park Ave. It could have 3 residential units and 1 commercial unit on the corner. Or four residential units. Or there could be six units on three stories (though four is ideal since you can get a FHA mortgage for up to four units). But, at two stories, the massing definitely compliments the massing of the existing neighboring properties. Not that we should necessarily constrain properties as such.

      1. Rosa

        a 4plex would be completely in tune with the neighborhood – both how it’s been historically and the new development that is hopefully pushing south from the Midtown Exchange.

        We have so many holes in the southside neighborhoods where fire or storm damage or condemnation took out a house and nothing is/can be built on the lot. They’re a bigger attack on neighborhood cohesions than a small multiunit could ever be.

    2. Wayne

      There’s no such thing as a ‘single family home’ lot. a SFH is a type of building forced by zoning, not a type of lot. Starting with the assumption that a lot is meant for nothing more than a SFH and that putting something more is somehow a concession to those wacky density folks is completely wrong. A lot in the city can be anything it wants to be when it grows up, and we don’t need no stinking zoning boxing it in to being just another bland box for 1 family.

  3. Julia

    I agree with you. Does it make sense to restrict placement of some things? Yes, like trains carrying volatile Bakken Oil through populated areas, or the emissions of known carcinogens and VOCs as we see from dry cleaners, gas stations, and highways/cty roads. Our zoning laws aren’t protecting us. They’re a needless government restriction (given that there are still planning and approval processes in place) borne out of xenophobia and hate that continue to uphold classism/racism.

    I keep thinking of Nicole Curtis embarrassing herself over 2320 Colfax. If she really cared about historic preservation, she’d fight to make sure every surface parking lot was free from zoning restrictions–tearing things down is expensive and the scarcity of lots appropriately zoned for infill/missing middle is what makes it worthwhile.

    I also think of how our our city has clustered higher density zoning along our most polluted roads. Is it really good city planning to enforce laws that ensure more people live under the public health risks of car exhaust or in proximity to brown sites? (Of course, part of the appeal of these areas is the proximity to commercial, which is also restricted to these areas.)

    If I could solve any city law that’s holding Minneapolis back, I think I’d undo zoning. I’ve seen CPED do some great work to try to make sure new buildings enhance rather than hurt the city. I’m confident that we lose nothing if we abandon a racist set of laws in favor instead of implementing best practices of urban planning.

    1. Monica Millsap RasmussenMonica Rasmussen

      I tend to agree with you that reducing zoning would increase development opportunities. Ideally, real estate developers would want to maximize on their profit and thus some self regulation would occur.

      Of course, by eliminating zoning, we may not always get what we want. In Saint Paul, for example, areas along Snelling and University are zoned for high density development and there is a certain floor ratio to parking development regulation. But, larger companies are able to ask for, and often receive variances, to the zoning regulation. Ryan Companies did just that for the Starbuck’s development at Marshall and Snelling. Without zoning restrictions, the development would have also likely occurred, the company wouldn’t have had to go through all the bureaucracy to do it.

      The City of Houston is a city known for no zoning codes. Yet, that doesn’t mean that development is happening in a way that encourages diversity or even density. It seems that the developers have found the most profit in “planned parks” that do regulate themselves, such as the type of housing built, the type of businesses that are included, and usually are restricted through homeowner type associations that govern things like house paint colors, fences, what you can/cannot have in your lawns, etc.

      There is likely something in between the two that would help.

      1. Julia

        I want to see zoning eliminated, but I don’t want to see regulation eliminated. I think restricting/regulating development for the public good makes sense–protect public health, encourage walkable development/forms, etc. I’d rather see that applied in a way that looks at the city as a whole, rather than designating some parts as “the apartments along congested polluted corridors” or the “single family homes near parks” which is basically what zoning seems to do: use archaic geographic determinations + some NIMBYism/lack-thereof to decide what happens where. Zoning as it’s practiced here feeds this self-perpetuating problem of segregation, as Wayne points out. Homogeneity, which is what zoning functions to intensify, isn’t good for a city, regardless of whether it’s a wealthy or poor neighborhood. Why not make sure we have a robust/resilient city plan and regulations that include equity and best practices, and then let development happen within that.

        It’s not like getting rid of R2 or R6 or whatever classification would in and of itself change much if there are strong logical regulations in place; development still has to get city approval and a good planning department (or wherever these duties fall) with clear guidelines should be able to balance developer desires with legitimate neighborhood/city desires/needs with best practices for urban development.

        (If I’m totally off in understanding these city processes, please correct me. This is mostly casual-observer understanding.)

      2. Nathanael

        Houston has parking requirements, and much worse, it has “restrictive covenants” which are worse than zoning. So it has most of the bad aspects of zoning.

    2. Wayne

      “I keep thinking of Nicole Curtis embarrassing herself over 2320 Colfax. If she really cared about historic preservation, she’d fight to make sure every surface parking lot was free from zoning restrictions–tearing things down is expensive and the scarcity of lots appropriately zoned for infill/missing middle is what makes it worthwhile.”

      This is something that always bothered me about the disingenuous arguments from NIMBYs masquerading as preservationists. They would say “oh there’s an empty parking lot somewhere else in town we should build on before tearing this down!” Nevermind the realities of ownership and location and zoning and all that jazz. Nope, just point to an empty lot and say they should build on that first. Sure, probably, but that’s not really possible most of the time or they’d have already done it because it’s easier and probably cheaper.

      Also I think *some* aspects of zoning are ok, like you mentioned the parts having to do with polluting land uses. But I think it’s really been abused over the years and turned into a monster that furthers economic,social, and racial segregation.

    1. Wayne

      I still think they should programmatically look at all existing nonconforming uses that are due to increased density over what something is zoned for (nothing like holdover industrial buildings in residential areas or anything) and use that to rezone those lots and adjacent ones (or maybe on a per-block basis) to a zoning type that allows the existing uses for that building and all its neighbors. It’s dispassionate and a whole lot more logical and fair than our current feels-based zoning process.

    2. Scott Walters

      At least in Saint Paul, you are allowed to re-establish the same non-conforming use. There’s a process, but another duplex could be built so long as you get it approved and started within 12 months. If you let it go longer than 12 months, you can still do it, but you need the explicit approval of most (can’t remember if it’s 75% or 2/3) of your neighbors within some very modest distance.

      1. Nathanael

        At this point, if I owned the lot, I’d design a fourplex, call it a duplex by merging two units on each side, and build it immediately. That way if the zoning ever relaxes, it can become a fourplex; in the meantime it’s a mansion duplex.

  4. Joe

    Agreed. Looking at the city zoning map is a weird hodge-podge that doesn’t make any sense. A 3-residential unit, 1 commercial unit building would fit in quite well here.

  5. Emily Metcalfe

    Great points. We have a similar situation in my neighborhood where a developer wants to place a small building (6 plex I think) on a lot where a single family home currently stands (1174 Grand Ave). The single family home is located with 2 small historic apartment buildings on either side. But the developer has run into neighborhood opposition as it tries to obtain zoning variances (rezoning, lot coverage, setbacks, etc). This is the perfect location for small scale infill development, since it lies along a block of small apartment buildings. Developers of large projects come with deep pockets ready to “work with” the neighborhood and city to get zoning changes. But developing a small project is challenging when you have to face multiple rounds with the city to get variances.

  6. Peter Bajurny

    It’s implied in a post like this that the city needs to continue to grow and densify. You can come to that conclusion for an environmental, or fiscal, or social justice, or aesthetic, or whatever perspective. But once you’ve reached that conclusion, you ask how, and you end up like answers that this post suggests.

    If you well and truly believe that the current status quo is the best possible outcome, that for whatever your goals are, a single family home on this lot meets those goals, then this post won’t make a whole lot of sense to you.

  7. Tara

    One of the reasons cities aren’t comfortable zoning for what “could be” instead of what is, is because of the restrictions on land uses that are considered nonconforming with existing zoning. There is valid fear and tension around a property owner’s ability to improve or expand their building(s) if the property has been zoned for something else. Changes to nonconforming use codes might free up the city to be more creative with zoning for uses that “could be.”

    1. Nathanael

      No city in the whole of the US has implemented actual form-based zoning.

      Form-based zoning means you regulate what it *looks* like, not what people are using it for. Obviously you still want to regulate pollution, and things which attract nuisances…. but if someone is running a lawyer’s office out of their home, you don’t say “Gotcha! Commercial use! Stop that!”.

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