A History of Downzoning

LHENA asks for apartment building moratorium

The year is 1995. A landlord is renovating his triplex when a concerned neighbor appeals to the neighborhood association for help. The organization comes to the rescue, deciding¹ that “because the building has been vacant for over a year, the nonconforming use expires and the building should revert to a duplex.” The neighborhood was Lowry Hill East. And that heroic concerned neighbor would go on to become the chairman of LHENA’s 2004 rezoning subcommittee.

The history of Lowry Hill East is full of stories like this. Over the last 45 years, our neighborhood political process has operated largely from the perspective, and with the priorities, of the single-family homeowner. Lowry Hill East is a place with a long tradition of apartment buildings and a population that has hovered around 75-85% renter for as far back as I can check (1940). But the politics is dominated by a consistent, uncompromising advocacy against dense, multi-family housing.

The elimination of high-density zoning was a founding principle of LHENA. In 1975, after years of hard work, the group succeeded in downzoning much of the neighborhood–both houses and apartment buildings–from high to low-density (R6 to R2). The inclusion of apartment buildings was done with the hope “that the properties would, if reconstructed, be redeveloped as single and two family homes.”

non-conforming apartment building

23 units, constructed in 1930. Downzoned to R2 (two-family) in 1975.

nonconforming apartment building

20 units, constructed in 1923. Downzoned to R2 (two-family) in 1975.

non-conforming apartment building

6 units, constructed in 1913. Downzoned to R2 (two-family) in 1975.

[View maps outlining the 1975 rezoning]

The Gentrification² Years

After declaring victory on the zoning issue, LHENA shifted focus towards promoting the restoration of single-family homes. Boarding houses were a particular target. In 1978, a LHENA-sponsored home tour proudly featured former boarding houses in the process of gentrification rehabilitation. Residents were celebrated in newspaper profiles for restoring their boarding houses to single-family homes. Neighborhood leaders would brag about rooming house conversions in their candidate bios. The boarding house nostalgia we’ve seen expressed in recent years, primarily as a product of the debate over the fate of the boarding house at 2320 Colfax, came as a shock to anyone familiar with LHENA history; when the group’s board of directors took up the issue of 2320 Colfax in 1992, they decided they were simply “opposed to the concept of a rooming house.”

In the early ’80s, LHENA took on the urgent task of preventing single-family homes from being “chopped up” into a duplexes. The enormous house at 2400 Bryant Ave was eventually saved by the combined efforts of a LHENA committee and Calhoun Realty (it was recently promoted for sale at $1.2 million with a drone flyover video; a gentrification preservation success story if I’ve ever heard one). In 1986, the organization’s president editorialized that LHENA should take advantage of favorable interest rates and “redouble efforts to work with realtors to attract good buyers” with the goal of “reverting some duplexes and boarding houses to single family.”

This is not to say that I’m offended by the idea of purchasing and converting an old duplex or boarding house to a single-family home. But it’s important to acknowledge the history. In my time as an observer of neighborhood politics, I have heard protests of “gentrification” from the mouths of people who have restored their homes to single family, who would now like to downzone Lowry Hill East and have it frozen in time with an all-consuming historic district. People have even used boarding house residents as an anti-development cudgel while advocating for turning the same boarding house into a single-family home or a boutique “urban hotel.”

Allow me to quote myself, from an alternate dimension where I have written a much snarkier blog post:

It’s a legitimately lousy situation when boarding house residents are forced to find a new home. But that’s nothing new in this neighborhood. The Wedge has a past plagued by persistent gentrification. These senseless acts of renovation can’t be stopped; it’s simply too embedded in the neighborhood culture.

LHENA boarding house conversion

Good luck gentrifying the neighborhood, Scott and Linda.

2002-2004: Apartment Moratorium and Rezoning

In 2002, LHENA again took up the issue of rezoning. Council Member Dan Niziolek assisted in those efforts by introducing a moratorium on the construction of apartment buildings. The moratorium would last for 20 months, giving LHENA the time to chart a course for rezoning.

LHENA stakeholders

Stakeholders include former renters as well as current non-renters.

LHENA’s rezoning subcommittee met for nearly a year, starting in May 2003. One of the more hilarious (or frightening) tasks performed by the subcommittee was sending volunteers house to house looking for illegal units. Intelligence gathered on these missions was later passed on to the city so that the illegal housing could be, in CPED’s words, “alleviated.” But the most notable result of the rezoning effort was LHENA’s 2004 plan to completely eliminate high-density zoning categories (R5, R6) from Franklin Avenue south to 28th Street, affecting a total of 244 parcels. This would have applied even to existing apartment buildings, with the idea that if the property was redeveloped (or destroyed in a fire, for example), it could not legally be rebuilt at its current level of density.

The LHENA proposal would also have rezoned 69 parcels to single-family (R1A), a category that did not (and still does not) exist in the neighborhood. This is how CPED characterized LHENA’s push for a six block “single family core” in 2004:

One of the most vocalized issues from the LHENA rezoning sub-committee was their commitment to preserving single family homes. Since much of the neighborhood is zoned R2B, many of the original single-family structures have been preserved as duplex conversions…

Planning staff do not support the neighborhood’s preference for single family development over duplexes, and have not identified a City policy that would support individually rezoning single-family homes…

Additionally, the presence of duplexes in this neighborhood provides for a more affordable mix of housing. It offers more rental opportunities beyond the typical apartment complex, as well as chances for affordable ownership.

The city had its own plan for the neighborhood, which would still have resulted in significant downzoning. This proposal cut almost in half the number of parcels zoned high-density R6, rezoning most of them as medium-density R4. After negotiations with the neighborhood, the city offered the concession of increasing–from 64 to 115–the number of downzoned properties. But LHENA wanted to downzone over 300 properties, and was unwilling to compromise.

LHENA 2004 rezoning maps

CPED proposal (left) vs. LHENA proposal (right)

LHENA 2004 rezoning proposals

[Read the full 2004 LHENA/CPED rezoning proposals]

In an email from the time, Council Member Dan Niziolek is described as having a “concern” that LHENA’s proposal would not “maintain a transit appropriate density.” LHENA’s plan for a single family core, and outright elimination of high-density zoning–for a neighborhood bounded by bus service on Hennepin and Lyndale Avenues–was too extreme, even for Niziolek; and remember, Niziolek was sympathetic enough to LHENA’s cause that he kickstarted the rezoning process with a 20-month apartment building moratorium.

As rezoning discussions came to a close, the Wedge newspaper reported that “if the city does not accept the Wedge plan, [LHENA] would like [zoning] to remain as is.” With LHENA refusing to budge, neither proposal was adopted. When today’s downzoning proponents talk about the development “target” that R6 zoning places on a property, it should be noted that a large number of those R6 properties would have been rezoned to R4 more than 10 years ago if LHENA had accepted CPED’s proposal.

2005-2015: Backdoor Downzoning

Shortly after the rezoning fell apart, LHENA began its pursuit of a historic district. They used funds received from the city’s NRP program to pay for a 2005 historic study. The chairman of LHENA’s NRP preservation subcommittee named two primary reasons for pursuing the historic district: one was preservation, and the other was to use it as a tool of rezoning: “to make development like that which occurred in the ’60s and ’70s more difficult.”

In 2008, the city was willing to give LHENA some of what it wanted by offering a historic district twice the size of what was recommended in the study the neighborhood commissioned three years earlier. But many residents involved in the process had their sights set on a massive historic district extending “from 28th St. to the tip of the neighborhood.” The 2008 plan went nowhere, amid concerns within LHENA “that acceptance of this proposal could limit future possibilities for expansion.”

A successful effort to designate a historic district in 2015, initiated by Council Member Lisa Bender, was met with similar all-or-nothing opposition. One of the opponents was the previous Council Member, Meg Tuthill–LHENA founder, and veteran of the 1975 and 2004 rezoning efforts. She dismissed the modestly-sized historic district as unnecessary in an area already zoned low-density: “The designation is a ‘feel good’ ruse for the city, pretending to care about preservation.” This reflects the fairly common belief among anti-development activists that downzoning and historic districts are interchangeable tools. According to this line of thinking, city planners who would enact both policies in the same place are engaging in trickery.

LHENA historic district

Size of the 2015 historic designation was disappointing for some.

The Future: Downzone, Gentrify, Repeat?

Before I’d ever been to Minneapolis, I looked at some maps–not a map of historic places, not a zoning map, but a transit map. I noted the high-frequency bus routes serving Lowry Hill East. I studied a Google map, and I noted the proximity of grocery stores, and other amenities made possible by higher density housing. I’m fortunate there were affordable 50-year-old apartment buildings when I arrived. And I hope for future policies that allow neighborhoods to keep changing, so that 50 years from now there will still be 50-year-old apartment buildings to rely on.

I have concerns about taking one of the city’s most walkable, transit-accessible, bike-friendly neighborhoods, located on the edge of downtown, and freezing it in place. In the 1970s, Lowry Hill East was zoned entirely high-density–but that is no longer the case. The activists of the 1970s successfully protected the low-density character of the neighborhood’s interior. Still, there are those with predictions of imminent neighborhood destruction who would now like to restart the downzoning process. Based on the neighborhood history, I have my doubts about the kind of proposal this process leads to.

¹ The house is still a non-conforming triplex, thanks to a system that allows the city to disregard the advisory opinions of neighborhood organizations.

² The repeated use of the word “gentrification” is not appropriate, and the author does not endorse abuse of the word by others.

25 thoughts on “A History of Downzoning

  1. Bose

    While is sounds like there have been mentions of having a B&B or boutique hotel as a positive thing in the neighborhood, is there any history of LHENA supporting folks trying to launch a lodging place?

    The only B&B I’m finding references to, Evelo’s, is now closed.

    1. Nick

      That’s a good question. Especially now that the regulatory precedent has been set by the planned inn above Alma.

  2. Casey

    The population in the wedge has increased by 47% in the last 10 years. Other neighborhoods could use development. If you are concerned about about taking one of the city’s most walkable, transit-accessible, bike-friendly neighborhoods, how about focusing on helping other neighborhoods in this direction.

    1. Matt SteeleMatt Steele

      Because most of your neighbors actually like their neighborhood better now than how it was a decade ago.

      And yes, we’ll also work towards growing neighborhoods by improving amenities across the city.

    2. Joseph TottenJoseph Totten

      Did the population increase 47% simply because of pent-up development finally reaching the point of need? Market forces? Why should we make existing properties no longer legal to rebuild? Should we spot zone the existing apartments so that this neighborhood can stay walkable, transit-accessible, and bike-friendly even if they all burn down?

      Your comment is not without merit overall, but saying that no one else should have access to the neighborhood’s amenities because other neighborhoods don’t have those same amenities… is a little confusing. To make a transit accessible neighborhood you need the transit, AND the density. The Wedge has the transit already.

    3. Alex CecchiniAlex Cecchini

      Is that 47% actually true? Census data from 2000 says the neighborhood had 5,912 people, and 6,150 in 2010. So likely somewhere at 6,000 in 2005/6 – for this to have grown by 47% since that time midway between the two, the population would need to be sitting at nearly 9,000 today. While there have definitely been hundreds of units added along the Greenway since 2010, I’m skeptical the Wedge is much more than 7,000 people today. ACS 5-year estimates from 2009-2013 peg the population at 6,700. Maybe I’m wrong! Just curious where that number came from.

      I sympathize with the idea that we should be working to make all of Minneapolis as transit-friendly and naturally walkable as the Wedge. At the same time, the Wedge has things many other neighborhoods will never have: proximity to Calhoun/Isles/Cedar Lakes, proximity to downtown, the Greenway, proximity to a growing second jobs center in Uptown, etc. We should encourage the type of positive feedback loop that happens when existing walkable commercial uses, transit service, and bike infrastructure continue to beget more of those things in a highly desirable neighborhood. This is a case of both, not or – the city should be working to improve the things it can elsewhere (and they are), as should the Met Council (they are – the C Line, Blue Line extension, West Broadway are all happening before any transit improvements to Uptown come).

      In any case, I’d really hope that if Minneapolis is a desirable enough city where Windom or Camden or Hale have the transit service and density the Wedge does today, that the Wedge itself would look something a little more like Loring Park than its current self.

      1. Daniel Herriges

        “In any case, I’d really hope that if Minneapolis is a desirable enough city where Windom or Camden or Hale have the transit service and density the Wedge does today, that the Wedge itself would look something a little more like Loring Park than its current self.”

        Hell yes to this. If the city is going to transform (and it should), the effects should be incremental and proportionate throughout. What happens too often is neighborhoods (generally low-income) without political muscle and connections bear the brunt of highly disruptive changes in land-use, density, demographic makeup, etc. while wealthy enclaves succeed in getting themselves frozen in amber in a state that benefits their current wealthy and well-connected residents.

  3. Matt SteeleMatt Steele

    LHENA’s actions has to be borderline criminal. Federal fair housing violations, possibly? Regardless, I think it’s time that Real LHENA organize a complete overhaul of the organization, starting with a complete rewrite of their scandalous bylaws.

    1. sara

      Who wants to exclude renters? I have never felt excluded.The renters and homeowners that I know, don’t give each other much thought. They just peacefully co exist. Get off the poor renter bend, and drop the language about the homeowners who eat children and small dogs, while counting their millions. It is getting really old.

      1. Scott ShafferScott Shaffer

        “Who wants to exclude renters?”
        The people who want to make it illegal to build rental housing in their neighborhoods. Those are people who want to exclude renters.

        1. Rosa

          so how many people wanted the new building, as evidenced by units rented? Does one homeowner get more vote than all those renters? How about the other homeowners, who probably made a lot of money selling their houses for the demo? Do other homeowners get to deprive them of that opportunity?

          People can have all sorts of feelings. I’m sad about the giant turnover in homeownership in my neighborhood because we were targeted for predatory lending before the housing meltdown. And yet, I don’t get to pass zoning that makes it impossible for the banks to resell those foreclosed houses.

        2. Truth

          And what about the low income renters that lived there that were evicted? Many in the neighborhood were actually working to help them, unlike the city council who did not respond to a request for a meeting on the renters behalf.

          1. Alex CecchiniAlex Cecchini

            From the article: “People have even used boarding house residents as an anti-development cudgel while advocating for turning the same boarding house into a single-family home or a boutique “urban hotel.” (source provided).

            There may have been genuine concern from some advocates in the community. However, the most vocal opponents (the ones filing appeals and writing blog posts and being stars of reality shows) had plans that would have also evicted those residents.

            It would be nice if we had 1) a bunch of bottom-end market rate housing options including, but not limited to, boarding houses (which were made illegal in this city some time ago), and 2) a broader range of subsidized housing options in the Wedge and other nearby neighborhoods. These, coupled with some regulations that force property renovators or developers to help cover the costs of moving, would really soften the blow of being evicted as properties are put to higher intensity use. It should be noted that new development of higher intensity like this one help boost the city’s tax levy – providing more options for low income housing and the staff necessary to oversee the type of social programs and regulations I’m talking about.

            It’s easy to focus on any individual developer or project as the problem. We need broader regulatory reform and funding streams to tackle this long-term rather than fighting each battle on a case-by-case basis.

  4. sara

    Yes the density of the Wedge will increase. All of the new development in the Wedge has not been “affordable”. I don’t foresee any “affordable” housing being built, land prices are too high and demand for luxury housing is strong. Now some of the owners of the 50 year old buildings (currently fairly affordable) are adding hardwood floors, granite countertops and stainless appliances. As you might expect, the rents increase accordingly. I am concerned that very soon our well located neighborhood , will be out of the price range of many people, including myself. Might be time to jump the trend and move to Phillips. Whittier, Powderhorn and Lyndale neighborhoods have already seen spikes in rents. You may not like to call it Gentrification, but in my book, if the new residents can afford to pay more in rents?………………………..well you decide

    1. Anton SchiefferAnton Schieffer

      People will always want to live near great infrastructure, and that’s something the Wedge has in spades right now, which other neighborhoods do not (though we wish they did). It’s walkable, safe, has great access to transit, etc. But the new housing being built right now will not be “luxury” forever. The second chart in this excellent Washington Post article notes how units priced at the top 20 percent of the rental market move to the middle of the market after about 25 years:


      1. RS

        As the WashPo article notes:

        “Adding one more point: None of this dismisses the fact that displacement from specific homes happens when low-income housing is literally knocked down to build high-end towers. A good amount of new supply in cities, though, can rise on under-utilized land (former industrial plots, surface parking lots, abandoned properties, etc.). ”

        If you are knocking down existing housing to build new housing, the new housing HAS to be more expensive to make economic sense. Over time, the new housing will lower metro-wide rents, but probably not in the neighborhoods that have become high-priced by replacing old with new.

        1. Anton SchiefferAnton Schieffer

          >If you are knocking down existing housing to build new housing, the new housing HAS to be more expensive to make economic sense.

          It doesn’t have to be more expensive, it just has to be a better use of space. If you build a triplex where a single-family home once stood, rent in any one of those given units will likely be less expensive compared to renting the entire SFH. That’s not driving up the cost, it’s allowing two more people/units to live in a desirable neighborhood who previously would be unable to afford the rent of a SFH.

          >Over time, the new housing will lower metro-wide rents, but probably not in the neighborhoods that have become high-priced by replacing old with new.

          Neighborhoods don’t become high-priced by replacing old housing stock with new, they become high-priced as the infrastructure around them improves, which makes them more desirable. If the reverse was true, we would expect developers to build all sorts of new housing in North, for example.

    2. Morgan

      That’s what happens when you limit supply. People with money who want to move to the neighborhood bid up prices of existing housing and give landlords an incentive to upgrade and charge more for their units. The only way to stop this is upzoning and increasing development.

  5. Daniel Herriges

    Fascinating to see the consistent use over time of language like “preserve” single-family homes as though those were the housing typology under threat in the neighborhood, not the multifamily buildings actually being targeted for extinction through rezoning. Certainly not the only politically powerful group using the language of the embattled underdog to couch what’s really an effort to enshrine special privileges for themselves (certain “religious freedom” advocates come to mind). But I can never totally tell how much of it is a calculated, Orwellian use of language, and how much of it is that these homeowner NIMBYs genuinely believe their neighborhood is under threat.

  6. Nathanael Nerode

    These “single family” fanatics are psychotic.

    Why is “single family” zoning even *legal*? It’s an invasion of privacy and there is no legitimate governmental interest behind it; it should be rejected as lacking a rational basis. Height limits are bad enough, but there is at least a rational basis for them. There is no rational basis for “single family” zones.

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