Time to Hold the Line on Downzoning

Forty-one years after a rezoning left most of Lowry Hill East zoned low-density, the city of Minneapolis has put neighborhood rezoning back on the table. The current plan is nearly all downzoning, meant to clean up the few high-density scraps left over from 1975. It’s hard not to take this issue personally, because I live in one of the last apartment buildings constructed before that long-ago downzoning; in other words, the roof over my head inspired a group of very passionate homeowners to say “that is enough of that!”

Lowry Hill East (aka the Wedge) is a dense, high-renter (75%) neighborhood, with exceptional access to amenities that make it a desirable place to live. The neighborhood is bounded by transit on all sides: bus routes 2, 4, 6, 17, 21, 12, 53, 113, and 114. We’re split down the center by a bike boulevard. We have the Midtown Greenway to our south, and more bike lanes on the way. I can walk to three grocery stores, a drugstore, a hardware store, two tattoo parlors, and countless psychic readers. My neighbors and I are all lucky to live here.

Considering the neighborhood’s location on the edge of downtown, with enviable access to transit and bike routes, it’s hard to understand the extent of the proposed downzoning. Roughly 25 properties on Bryant and Aldrich Aves, between 24th St and Franklin Ave, would be reclassified from high to medium-density (R6 to R3). This is despite the fact that anyone who lives in that small seven-block triangle is no more than a few minutes walk from four different bus routes. From a transit perspective it’s actually better to live in the interior of the neighborhood: it means you’re close to many bus routes, instead of just one bus route. If a growing Minneapolis is our goal, this is exactly the kind of place we ought to be growing. It’s not an area we should be downzoning.

CPED's plan to downzone the transit-rich north Wedge.

CPED’s plan to downzone the transit-rich north Wedge from high (brown) to medium density (orange). (emojis added for emphasis)

Here’s one example to illustrate why this is a problem. There’s a 10-unit apartment building–small footprint, single lot, one parking spot–that’s about to begin construction in the transit-heavy north Wedge. It was made possible by our neighborhood’s transportation amenities, as well as recent reforms that eliminated or reduced some of our city’s residential parking requirements. But a building like this also requires high-density zoning. I want to see more projects like this, not fewer. We should be careful not to undercut the positive results of parking reform (fewer cars, lower rents) by underzoning one of the neighborhoods best positioned to take advantage of the new policy.

It’s time to accept that we will never sate the Downzoning Gods. There are people in Linden Hills who would like to be shielded from development. There are homeowners in Whittier who’d like restrictions too. And in two or 10 or 20 years, there will be people in Lowry Hill East who will ask for even more downzoning, or a larger historic district. Because that’s how it always is. Goalposts get moved.

1975 Wedge neighborhood newspaper headline. We're gonna win so much on downzoning you're gonna get tired of winning.

1975 Wedge neighborhood newspaper headline. Upon further review, downzoning activists have decided they need more winning.

The 1975 downzoning in Lowry Hill East (which I wrote about here), was hailed as ultimate victory–until it wasn’t. In 2004, the same longtime activists pushed a plan that included single-family zoning. A few years later, they began lobbying for a historic district (a “backdoor downzoning” intended primarily as a roadblock to multi-family development).

Neighborhood by neighborhood, taken individually, downzoning is the easy answer, and politically tempting. But as a city, we need to hold the line–whether for reasons related to sustainability, public health, the cost of housing, or creating a broader tax base to support more and better city services.

Not everyone is going to live in a luxury mega-tower downtown. Some people will need to live a few streets in from Hennepin or Lyndale or some other busy corridor. Some people will have to live inside our neighborhoods, in the nondescript fourplex next door, and in the 10-unit apartment building down the block. It sends the wrong message to be downzoning Lowry Hill East, when the hard truth is there are a lot of Minneapolis neighborhoods that need some upzoning.

We should also acknowledge the real health consequences that result from restricting large numbers of renters to the edges of high-pollution, high-traffic, statistically more dangerous streets and highways, while using zoning and historic districts to reserve neighborhood interiors for single-family homeowners.

So we will need to overcome the bias against apartment buildings in our neighborhood interiors. I’m not sure how that became a radical idea, because I see rows of old apartment buildings on quiet interior streets in the Wedge, in East Isles, in CARAG and elsewhere. Higher density housing is not inherently disruptive. The land underneath many of our area’s 100-year-old apartment buildings has, over the decades, been downzoned to low-density. But these buildings fit our neighborhoods just fine and–if we acknowledge the history–they always have.

non-conforming apartment building

Apartment buildings like this one, at 25th and Colfax, show that high density housing has always had a place in the neighborhood interior.

As I said, my apartment building was constructed just before the 1975 Wedge downzoning. That’s fortunate for me and my neighbors, because the building has aged into affordability. As a result, it has the kind of racial diversity you don’t see in the extremely low-density historic district down the street. I worry about the impact downzoning has, not just on our city’s near-term ability to meet an ever-increasing demand for housing, but on the way my neighborhood looks, and who gets to live here, decades into the future.

The Lowry Hill East downzoning plan will go before the Minneapolis City Planning Commission in the near future. You can email planner Brian Schaffer <brian.schaffer@minneapolismn.gov> and City Council Member Lisa Bender <Lisa.Bender@minneapolismn.gov> with your feedback.

20 thoughts on “Time to Hold the Line on Downzoning

  1. janne

    I wonder whether it’s about “downzoning” or “upzoning” or zoning reform.

    The zoning code has changed since 1975, and so it’s not just a set of goalposts, moving one way or the other. It’s more like a chess board, with moves in every direction that are hard for most people to follow.

    I think Alex Cecchini has the right idea (https://streets.mn/2015/06/02/what-if-we-upzoned-all-of-minneapolis-tomorrow/), noting that “the zoning code of today is actually below the existing level of development.” That’s silly, if what we want to do is ‘preserve neighborhood character,’ a statemet of which I’m skeptical. And that’s especially silly if we want to welcome more residents and keep housing affordable.

    Personally, I think our zoning code is broken, and does a terrible job of letting us have more of what we like and instead forces most new things to actively make our neighborhoods worse. No wonder people don’t like new development!

  2. Will StancilWill Stancil

    Downzoning in the heavily white Lowry Hill East is precisely the sort of segregative land use decision that may constitute a failure by the city of Minneapolis fulfill its federal civil rights obligation to affirmatively further fair housing and promote fair housing choice. Certainly, the city is required to consider the impact of decisions like these on overall patterns of segregation and integration, something it has not done and shows no willingness to do. This is an especially frustrating case because the Lowry Hill East/Whittier racial divide is one of the more noticeable in the region.

    1. Julia

      This times 100. Our focus on equity can’t be solely on reorienting our priorities and funds towards RCAP. We need to take a very serious look at how we’re allowing some neighborhood (with neighborhood groups run primarily by privileged white homeowners) to basically self-segregate into wealthy white enclaves within our own city. RCAW are as much a measure of the shameful disparities and inequities of Minneapolis as RCAP and we’re not going to make real progress towards equity so long as these neighborhoods are able to successfully push for downzoning (and the subsequent loss of services like adequate transit) in part through unchecked incendiary, barely-coded racist and classist language. At best in LHE, Lowry Hill, East Isles, and other neighborhoods, lower-income residents are essentially relegated by the Minneapolis city government to the polluted exterior streets.

      Unless One Minneapolis has a geographic component to ensure there’s public transportation and housing access for all Minneapolitans (current and future) to all neighborhoods, we won’t have a vibrant or an equitable city.

  3. Shawn

    As much as I’m an advocate in support of not upzoning people’s homes out from under them. I’m opposed to this downzoning too. I guess I just like status quo and slow, gradual, considered development. I’m not a radical. Given the chart above, downzoning makes no sense here for all the reasons the author cited.

    1. Reilly

      Glad to hear there are moderates like yourself, but I do have to comment on the notion of “upzoning people’s homes out from under them”. No incumbent homeowner is losing her home “to upzoning” unless she freely chooses to sell to a developer.

        1. Morgan

          Great! People who value that above all else should not be living in the most vibrant, amenity-rich, close-to-downtown parts of the city. There are tons of places they can go.

          1. Monte Castleman

            Ignoring that the suburban growth haters are trying to eliminate other options for people, or at least make them so expensive that only the rich can afford light and privacy, I guess driving people that don’t want to live crammed together out of their homes in the city is a good thing? OK.

            But for now other options do exist. Suppose we tell everyone potentially buying a house in the city that in X years the area will be upzoned and a huge apartment could be built next door. If as other commenters claim there’s enough people willing to live like that it shouldn’t hurt the resale value of the homes,

            1. Alex CecchiniAlex Cecchini

              Would really be interested in hearing how people who want the government to allow more housing options in more places across the region – including smaller homes on smaller lots in suburbs – are the ones trying to restrict options. Right now if you live in Third/Fourth Ring Generic Suburb, your options are “single family home” or a literal handful of apartments. Your options to comfortably and quickly get around for daily travel are “car” or “SUV.” I think you should be taking a look at people who like to use zoning and planning in suburbs as the ones at fault for limiting options and making new single fam housing more expensive.

        1. Matt SteeleMatthew Steele

          Not really though. Your assessed value is based on comps – actual sale records for properties that are as similar as possible to yours. That is, they know a house with X bedrooms and Y square feet in Z neighborhood sells for this, and a house with A bedrooms and B square feet in C neighborhood sells for that, and can rather effectively triangulate a value.

          Also, property values are broken up into two categories: land value, and improvements. Of course, having property zoned with similar entitlements in the same neighborhood where there’s proven market demand for intensifying land use would result in higher assessed value for the land. But that is just one very small piece of the overall property value , so the “highest and best use of the land” doesn’t really raise taxes.

          And, given all the other new land uses paying a larger share of the overall tax base, new development in the city generally means lower property taxes for us homeowners.

          Of course, I fully support moving towards a land value tax as a replacement for a property tax, probably with some sort of program to hold down tax increases for homesteaded homeowners – especially people like seniors with fixed incomes. I’d even like to see a phaseout of the homestead tax credit over time, in exchange for a program that buffers homeowners for sharp increases in property tax liabilities.

  4. Julia

    Thank you for this post! It’s long been incredibly bizarre to me that we have restricted, in tandem, highest density housing/commercial and our most congested, polluted commuter and truck routes onto the exact same roads (not to mention the placement of our toxic/carcinogenic brownsites, like gas stations and drycleaners).

    I’m very disheartened to see this downzoning being pushed, in 2016, in Lowry Hill East. Historically, many of the now-single-family-homes that dot the neighborhood (and Lowry Hill/East Isles to the west) housed higher densities than they’re now being restricted to. From wealthy households with live-in help to upper/middle-class homeowners with extended family and boarders, even these homes functioned as far more urban than the insidiously destructive dream of sprawling suburbia that has infected our city’s core in the past few decades.

    For example, my father grew up in one of the houses included in the proposed downzoning above and declared a “critical property” by LHENA. It’s one of those that used to be a single family home (with extra rooms above the garage), but is now subdivided into 3-4 units with a paved lot replacing the functional ADU. Despite this shift from R1 (if zoning had been a thing) to OR2, the density is almost certainly lower now than when he lived there with his eleven siblings and two parents. While they were technically a “single family,” when they bought the house in the early 1930s, they functioned more like the future-residents of the 10-unit building going in on Bryant; of the 14 people, five were adults when they moved in, and 9-10 were wage-earners (the younger ones working before or after school). Regardless of the economic situation that necessitated this, functionally the number of people and their daily activities meant that they were making use of and contributing to the economic and social fabric of the city in a way more akin to today’s “high density” development than the few residents of most historically-designated homes/streets nearby.

    By having density like this (and without zoning that prohibited it in cases where the 14 people weren’t one nuclear family), neighborhoods supported not just commercial corridors, but corner stores and businesses dotting the interior blocks as well. These in turn provided convenient staples to the car-free residents, as well as the kind of variety and scale of activity and structures that make for a walkable city.

    Every fear embodied by the term “gentrification” has been and is exacerbated by downzoning: the rising rents & fancified commercial options, the slow sapping of our neighborhoods of tiny walkable stores and businesses, the erasure of all but a kind of homogenous-privileged resident, the ever-more faceless and distant landlords who’re willing to raise rent by double-digit percentages. It’s what happens when we socially engineer (through heavily restrictive downzoning) the number of units of housing or commercial a neighborhood is allowed. Not only are people displaced, but, as John points out, they never make it in, or they make it in only temporarily because rising rents and a lack of affordable units drive them out. I personally was displaced from Lowry Hill East when my landlord sold. I was able to find a small studio in a nearby neighborhood for 150+% more (nothing in my price range was available in LHE). Even here, I have a list of a dozen friends who are interested in taking over my lease should I ever move out because they want to live in this location and there are so few openings.

    If we want a thriving, vibrant, sustainable, equitable city, we can’t use our zoning as a kind of fantasy-fulfillment for a Minneapolis-that-never-was (except, possibly, during the worst years as our urban core was gutted). Prohibiting density in certain areas provides no social or environmental or financial benefits and comes at untenable costs. We’re not returning to some “historical” Minneapolis; if anything, we’re trying to “preserve” individual structures like my father’s childhood home in ways that are not only wholly historically inaccurate, but antithetical to the vibrant and dense Minneapolis that made it a place his family could afford and wanted to be. Downzoning artificially restricts housing supply, forcing rents up, exacerbating inequity, and degrading the city’s tax base, and fights sustainability by decreasing basic walkability, increasing transit-costs-per-user/decreasing transit service, & forcing car-dependency. Downzoning in Minneapolis is a clearly failed experiment that will take us years to recover from.

    1. Rosa

      This is such a great comment, I wish there were just a way I could upvote it. This is EXACTLY why downzoning is such a problem.

      My own house is a similar example – it was a boarding house in the ’40s and housed large families at various times before and after. Our family is ridiculously small for the amount of land we take up in the neighborhood. But when we had roomates, that was probably illegal (we researched it, it was a grey area – but we definitely broke the “unrelated persons” rules for local rentals, if we had all been renters.) There’s absolutely no reason 5 people can’t live in a 4 bedroom house – all of our parents grew up in houses with 2-4 people per bedroom.

  5. Anton SchiefferAnton Schieffer

    The long-term effects of this are what I’m most concerned about. Those apartments that were built in the 1970s (and earlier) now provide some of the only affordable units in the neighborhood. Why are we making it harder to build more multi-family buildings? We need to build more units in this highly desirable neighborhood, or we’ll continue to see rents spiral out of control. What’s the point of having a vast amount of transit options available if we don’t have enough housing for people to live in the area?

  6. Diane Galvin

    I realize I am coming in on this discussion quite late but I read streetsmn once a week — Sun. eve.   I’d like to share my view, just in case somebody is still following this discussion (and I apologize, it’s a bit disjointed but I don’t know how to tie this all together):

    I used to own a single fam., 1.5 story, almost 100 year old house on Dupont Ave, btwn 28th and the rail trench/greenway.  My residential history pre-dated the trench to bike conversion, not to mention the condo-ization of the south half of all of multiple blocks between Lyndale and Hennepin south of 28th and the general gentrification that pushed arts professionals like me out & has changed the social fabric & feel of the neighborhood.

    Of those 15 years of owning/living in that house, 7 were spent under threat of eminent domain — until the supreme court ruled development was not an appropriate use for that maneuver.  Then it become an on and off again game being contacted and then not hearing from multiple developers who were interested in buying me out along with my neighbors (rentals including duplexes on either side of me and duplex & single fam. across the street).

    The threats of overshadowing, not to mention noise, construction crews’ disruption, having the street torn up and/or blocked numerous times, seeing neighbors stressed & anxious and having my view of anything besides the building next door vanish over the course of a summer.  There seemed no end to the destruction and re-building of what had once been a quiet neighborhood street where I knew my neighbors. I suspect fear of just that sort of thing is at least part of what’s behind the pro-down-zoners.  They don’t want to go through what I did and they don’t want their block to change like mine did.  

    At the same time, I understand the attraction to Uptown and it’s walk-ability.  Too this day I miss that. What was financially possible for me after being pushed out of Uptown was a first ring suburb with nothing within walking distance except a city park and one bus route.  I also empathize and agree with those who write that what Uptown/Wedge has to offer should not be accessible only to those with upper middle class incomes.  I and many of my art world friends have been gentrified out of numerous neighborhoods and few of us can afford what Uptown and North Loop and now Central/north Hennepin have become.  It’s a 4-10 year cycle for some of us — move, get priced out of the neighborhood, move rinse and repeat.

    To say it’s about racial or financial equity sounds right, but really isn’t this debate about ownership vs renter-ship?  Homeowners who want to keep the status quo because they fear what change may bring vs renters who want change, increased options and buildings to move into so they can be part of a transit friendly, most safe and “cool” neighborhood that doesn’t require a car.  

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