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 <[email protected]> and City Council Member Lisa Bender <[email protected]> with your feedback.