One Block, 32 Apartments Too Many

Inspired by the New York Times‘ recent analysis of Manhattan buildings that would not be legal under current zoning, I undertook a far less ambitious analysis of one block of the Wedge neighborhood in Minneapolis. By today’s zoning standards, on this one block, there are 32 apartments too many. Seven out of 23 buildings have too many dwelling units; these nonconforming buildings range from triplexes to a 23-unit apartment building. This is largely the result of the neighborhood’s 1975 downzoning.


2400 block between Colfax and Dupont Ave S.

non-conforming apartment building

21 units too many (2446 Colfax)

This one block isn’t unusual in my neighborhood, or the city. By historical standards, Minneapolis is underzoned. This has consequences. As the New York Times points out:

Such limitations can quickly decrease the supply of housing, and most likely drive up rents. If every tenement in the city were reconfigured in these ways, they would be less crowded, but there would also be fewer apartments to go around.

non-conforming apartment building

18 units too many (26th & Aldrich)

There’s another zoning wrinkle currently working against more affordable multi-family housing. Many properties zoned for duplexes (R2) can’t become duplexes because of minimum lot area requirements implemented in the 1990s:

From 1963 to 1994, two-family dwellings in the R2B District required a minimum lot area of 2,500 square feet per dwelling unit. In 1994, a zoning code text amendment increased that minimum lot area to 10,000 square feet. The minimum lot area for two-family dwelling units in the R2 District from 1963 to 1999 was 6,000 square feet per dwelling unit. In 1999, this minimum lot area in the R2 District for a two-family dwelling unit was amended to 12,000 square feet. As noted above, these regulations remain in place today.

This policy is more restrictive than many other cities in Minnesota. But it could change in the near future. City Council Members Lisa Bender and Kevin Reich recently introduced a proposal to cut those minimum lot area requirements in half. This would be a small reform–like parking reform last year, and the ADU ordinance in 2014–to bring Minneapolis closer to allowing the historical housing types it’s been fighting against for the past 40 years.

As the city updates its comprehensive plan over the next two years, we should take advantage of the opportunity to do much more, to build the kinds of housing that many people say they enjoy: duplexes, triplexes, and old apartment buildings that make up much of our city’s naturally occurring affordable housing. Buildings that were common 70 or 100 years ago, but that wouldn’t be legal to build today.

5 thoughts on “One Block, 32 Apartments Too Many

  1. Matt SteeleMatthew Steele

    Great post. I’m also frustrated by how the city handles previously nonconforming uses too.

    There’s a very short window for re-establishing a nonconforming use, such as in the case of 3748 Park.

    In combination with our ridiculously underzoned parking, this means that we see a reduction of dwellings in the city as structures cease to exist due to fire, neglect, etc. A similar case is 2744 Taylor St NE, just off Central Ave. As of five years ago, there were at least four dwelling units here. The building was demolished along the way, and was recently auctioned as tax forfeited land. This is zoned R2B, but not even a duplex can be built here due to minimum lot sizes. So, we go from having 4+ units for nearly a century, to having one. Bad news for Minneapolis.

    Another example is 3329 Nicollet Avenue in South Minneapolis, a CPED-owned vacant lot on a block of walkup apartment buildings. It’s being marketed for a single family home, even though the zoning is R4.

  2. Sam NewbergSam Newberg

    I like this post. It offers up an interesting perspective and is one of a couple recent posts at dealing with zoning and planning policy overall. I hope there will be more posts as the city works through its comp plan update. Let’s get as many suggestions and solutions as possible, big and small, on the table.

  3. Thatcher

    Thanks for posting. Interesting insight on zoning history and how unconforming it is

  4. GlowBoy

    So I can build a single family home on a typical 4000 sf lot, but a duplex requires a 12,000 sf lot? In the city? That’s one of the stupidest laws I’ve ever heard of.

  5. Joe ScottJoe

    530.170 d “The corners of parking lots where rows of parking spaces leave areas unavailable for parking or vehicular circulation shall be landscaped as specified for a required landscaped yard. Such spaces may include architectural features such as benches, kiosks or bicycle parking.”

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