Minneapolis City Council “Outraged” Over DNR Downzoning to Benefit Elected Officials

Two members of the Minneapolis City Council have expressed serious concern over what they see as the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources pushing special land-use restrictions that would protect the proverbial backyards of certain unnamed elected officials. The comments were made during a June 9 Zoning and Planning Committee discussion about new rules for the Mississippi River Corridor Critical Area. The MRCCA is an area along the Mississippi River subject to “special land development regulations that protect and preserve unique natural, recreational, transportation, and cultural features.”

Council President Johnson called the DNR’s proposal “distressing” and joked that she’d like to make a special deal to protect her own backyard: “If I could carve some stuff out too, I might do that.” The area in question—half of Nicollet Island and an adjacent area encompassing Boom Island Park—includes the homes of State Rep. Phyllis Kahn and former Minneapolis City Council member Diane Hofstede.

Council member Lisa Goodman said she was “outraged” and described the DNR’s proposal as “last-minute changes made for political purposes to provide downzoning and protections for elected officials and their families and not anyone else.” She added that the DNR’s map “boundaries make absolutely no sense” other than as a political favor: “There’s no other explanation for why half of Nicollet Island would be in a further-protected area in the middle of our central business district.”

MRCCA smaller proposed map

City Council members suggest the DNR “downzoned” the area in yellow as a favor to elected officials who live there.

One consequence of the DNR’s proposed map would be a restriction on building height that conflicts with the city’s current code. Nearly 50 properties currently zoned R5 would fall under an MRCCA maximum height of 35 feet, far less than the existing Minneapolis zoning which allows for 56 feet.

Both Johnson and Goodman expressed a strong desire for Minneapolis to maintain “flexibility” and independence on land-use decisions, with Johnson citing the benefits of “billions and billions of dollars worth of investment” along the river in recent years. Goodman worried it would create another layer of zoning confusion for residents: “Our zoning is what should prevail and not some DNR-imposed fake rezoning that would give people some sort of feeling like we’re going to be capping heights and development and distance from the river.”

A draft response to the DNR proposal written by city planning staff notes the area in question contains buildings which are already taller than the proposed limits, and points out this is an urban center designated by city policy for future growth. The letter says it would be “short-sighted to designate this area long term as low density residential” and requests the area be reclassified to match adjacent “urban” districts.

In addition to feedback from the city on these new rules, the DNR is accepting comments from the public until July 6, 2016.

31 thoughts on “Minneapolis City Council “Outraged” Over DNR Downzoning to Benefit Elected Officials

  1. Tom Quinn

    Kahn and her DFL cronies have had a special deal on Nicollet Island for decades which has enabled it to become a unique urban residential island. A very desirable place to live, indeed, but generally not available to those not in the Minneapolis DFL inner circle.

    On the other hand, I’d hate to see the island loose its quaint historical charm and become another collection of high rise apartment buildings with their ubiquitous brick, tan stucco, and glass facades.

    1. Alex CecchiniAlex Cecchini

      Nicollet Island lost its historic charm decades ago: https://twitter.com/StribRoper/status/587740415815651328 & https://twitter.com/StribRoper/status/587741315204427776

      It’s a shell of its former self. But I’ll also say that the buildings that used to be on it were also ubiquitous for their time. I’m not sure whether this island could support high-rises, but at the very least mid-rises would be reasonable. Nicollet Island is basically the size of Île de la Cité in Paris. I hear people like Paris.

      1. Steve

        Not really a fair comparison. The commercial portion along Hennepin was obliterated, but the northern residential part is intact – not exactly a “shell of its former self”. People like Paris because it’s pretty and historic.

        1. Alex CecchiniAlex Cecchini

          Hopefully someone can correct me, but weren’t some of the residential units on the northern half moved to the island from elsewhere after mass clearing? In any case, I’d hardly call this intact: https://goo.gl/maps/24w68VkcVnp compared to this: http://geo.lib.umn.edu/minneapolis/y1938/MP-3-266.jpg

          Some homes clearly remain, but there were many lost.

          I’d say a pretty good deal could be struck that allowed every existing structure to stay, carve out some of the vacant park space for a high-quality urban park, and let 4-8 story structures fill in the rest. Especially if a Nicollet-Central streetcar could have a stop on the island (or better, some grade-separated transit – again, not different than Île de la Cité in Paris).

    2. Ryan

      You forget that there are three land owners on the Island: Minneapolis Park and Rec, DeLaSalle High School and Nicollet Island Inn.

      Kahn and her cronies own no land, just structures. The Park Board can evict at any time.

      1. Matt Brillhart

        I don’t know about “at any time”…I’d guess the homeowners all secured 99-year leases of the land beneath their homes as part of the deal.

  2. Shawn

    That’s an interesting debate. On the one hand, I see the cities’ desire for high density growth, but on the other, we can quickly obscure and destroy that which made the area attractive to begin with and I see that as something the DNR is trying to protect.

    Is the real driving factor these politicians who happen to live there? I dunno. That’s, sadly, just as plausible from this armchair.

    1. Shawn

      I think someone should tell google to do this for every historical photo:
      1920s Chicago River:

      2015 Chicago River:

      1920s Mississippi River, looking at St Anthony Main:

      2015 MS River, looking at St Anthony Main:

    2. Nick

      Nicollet Island is probably more defensible than the Boom Island infill that happened after the north ring was cancelled. Not much historic or unique about the characteristics of those blocks.

  3. Bill LindekeBill Lindeke

    Of course I would have preferred to see Goodman simply yell KAAAAAHN!

    A while back someone posted a real estate ad for one of the 70s ranch homes off Main Street (where they’d bulldozed the area for a never-buitl freeway) and it was sort of amazing that you could buy this one-story ranch home with a 2-3 car garage in a very low density park-like suburban setting that’s also a 15 minute pleasant stroll from the very center of the CBD.

  4. Anton SchiefferAnton Schieffer

    Can anyone with knowledge on this tell me why/how the DNR has the authority to “zone” this property anyway? Is it actually even zoning?

    Seems like this is proposed to keep Nicollet Island as exclusive as possible, something many neighborhoods have been doing for decades – if only we could all live so close to powerful politicians! Oh wait…this downzoning makes that even less likely.

    1. Bill LindekeBill Lindeke

      Probably has to do with the DNR Mississippi River “Critical Area” changes. The river is technically a national park and they’re working on changes to the rules. (http://news.dnr.state.mn.us/2016/04/12/dnr-seeks-comments-on-proposed-rules-for-mississippi-river-corridor-critical-area/) This is a big deal in St Paul too as some of the proposed rules for bluff areas would greatly restrict any development near the bluff, including huge swaths of the city near where I live on the West Side, which would become non-conforming and changing or developing anywhere near them would become very difficult.

      So yeah that’s my guess.

    2. John EdwardsJohn Edwards Post author

      Goodman called it a “fake rezoning that would give people some sort of feeling like we’re going to be capping heights and development…” Makes it seem less than binding, but I don’t know.

  5. Steve

    I guess I’m missing something here. Isn’t this all Minneapolis parkland anyway? Not like that it would ever be built on.

  6. Joe ScottJoe

    What’s weird to me is that a taller building with a smaller footprint is probably much better hydrologically. Why would the DNR care about height, as opposed to area?

    1. Bill LindekeBill Lindeke

      The Friends of the Mississippi River are also incessantly concerned about building height. Any time any project that might be visible from the river or change the bluff line comes up, they weigh in. I’ve aways thought it’s a bit weird myself, the idea that “views” are a “resource” similar to water, plants, or ecology.

      1. Ryan

        “Views” are also included in the zoning definitions for some of this, particularly they want to maintain views in the “urban mixed” district, which is a large chunk of their proposal:

        > Allows for future growth and potential transition of intensely developed areas that does not negatively affect public river corridor views and protects bluffs and floodplains.

        1. Nick

          If we really cared about views there would be a plan to bury the transmission lines that cross the river at SAF and/or Nicollet Island before following both sides of the river north toward Lowry.

          1. Ryan

            Should probably bury Hennepin, 1st, Central and the railroad in tunnels too, those moon elevator bridges are blocking some prime river viewing.

          2. Joey SenkyrJoey Senkyr

            Cheaper to just tell people they can’t build things than to find a few hundred million dollars to replace infrastructure, though.

        2. Bill LindekeBill Lindeke

          I just think views are so subjective. I’m sure that when the Eiffel Tower was built, many people considered it a blight on the landscape ruining views.

          1. Ryan

            Indeed– if you look at Edmonton, a river runs through it and they have no problems combining nature with tall buildings.

      2. Monte Castleman

        I didn’t interpret this any other way than “we don’t want to have to see a bunch of tall buildings by the river that runs through the city.” You look at some state parks land acquisition, and it’s a random farm of no ecological significance that they’re just buying to keep people from building McMansions on it that you could see from the park.

        For that matter a lot of our major bridges- Hennepin, Lowry, St Croix Crossing, Hastings would look a lot different if we just let engineers design them without caring about aesthetics. Viewshed issues were why they picked such an odd and expensive design for St. Croix.

          1. Alex CecchiniAlex Cecchini

            I’ll also say that some of the most stunning (and I’d argue popular) pictures and views are ones where there’s a stark contrast between nature and urbanity. Skylines against mountain ranges (Denver) or big bays (San Francisco) or lakes (Chicago). The contrast between Central Park and the wall of skyscrapers along it. The view of downtown Minneapolis with the river (and [pick your bridge] over it) in the foreground.

            Heck, cities like London and Paris have next to no nature along their rivers to speak of, and tons of people snap pictures of their views.

            We already have a slice of parkland carved out along most of our bodies of water. Whether or not this is a good idea from a water quality, species protection, public health, etc standpoint should definitely be debated against other goals. But views feel like a super wishy washy reason to oppose things.

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