Downzoning Can’t Save Us From the Future

I recently wrote about the rezoning that’s under consideration for Minneapolis’ Lowry Hill East neighborhood. After a few more weeks of thought, these are my big-picture concerns.

Downzoning is Forever

The city’s proposal has been described as interim protection that gets us through until the next update to the Minneapolis Comprehensive Plan (the process for which is currently underway). But “interim” gives the impression that downzoning is temporary. This is technically true; all laws are potentially temporary. But in reality, we’re still stuck with a 1975 decision that left most of the Wedge under-zoned for nothing greater than a duplex. Downzoning is easy. Upzoning is hard.

It might be right to say this particular rezoning plan is a relatively insignificant drop in the bucket, but it’s still the wrong bucket. Across the city, and over the years, these decisions add up. While we don’t know what the Comp Plan update holds, it would be short-sighted to think we won’t be living with today’s downzoning in 2055.

lhe rezoning current v proposed

Includes all parcels north of 28th Street (data compiled by Alex Cecchini).

Why the Urgency?

Most of the neighborhood is currently zoned low-density. This means that between 24th and 28th Streets, almost nothing is at risk of intensification under the existing zoning. The current proposal is focused largely in the north Wedge, where high-density zoning has produced just two new apartment buildings over the last 40-plus years: a 42-unit building (2320 Colfax Ave) and a 10-unit building on the way (2008 Bryant Ave). Again: two new buildings in 40 years.

These are not the scary, 84-foot mega-towers you might think; they’re the kind of incremental, four-story, reduced-parking, transit-accessible housing we should want more of, not less. And they don’t get built without high-density zoning (R5 or higher). If these sorts of buildings are the source of urgency for a rezoning, then it’d be good to hear an explicit argument for why they’re bad for the neighborhood.

Making our Current Housing Problems Worse

One of the consequences of our persistently low rental vacancy rates is the trend of older apartment buildings facing luxury renovations and dramatically higher rents. Lack of supply gives landlords the upper hand: more renters bidding for fewer apartments. Downzoning doesn’t just stop new housing for rich jerks, it makes it more likely that a rich jerk will soon be living in a much nicer version of your current apartment. In other words, downzoning can’t stop people from wanting to live here.

(Fake Take™: downzoning should only be done in tandem with a policy that makes this a place nobody wants to live.)

Downzoning Does Not Protect the Neighborhood’s Existing Multifamily Character

You may hear advocates say that downzoning protects the character of the neighborhood. But low-density zoning only protects low-density character. Lowry Hill East, despite a history of downzoning, has always been a high-density neighborhood with great local amenities and access to public transit (whether streetcar or bus).

My favorite neighborhood zoning story illustrates the dangers and limitations of downzoning as a tool of preservation. It involves a vacant house undergoing renovation. After being downzoned to two-family in 1975, it remained a legal, non-conforming triplex for 20 years. In 1995, the neighborhood association (LHENA) tried unsuccessfully to have the non-conforming use revoked–to make the triplex illegal.


Wedge newspaper, 1995

By my count, the current downzoning proposal creates at least 20 non-conforming properties where there are more units than zoning allows. This is in addition to countless existing non-conformities created by the 1975 downzoning. Non-conforming properties are vulnerable, and we shouldn’t be creating more. A long period of disuse puts a building’s legal status at risk. If a non-conforming apartment building is destroyed, by fire or other disaster, state law allows reconstruction to its original use, but only if it occurs within 180 days.

Multi-unit housing is also vulnerable to single-family conversions. Eliminating existing housing has long been an explicit goal of the neighborhood association and other activists–people with a distaste for renters and a belief that duplexes and triplexes are an illegitimate use of a fine historic house. Much to their delight, we’ve seen many multi-unit houses converted to single-family uses over the last 40 years.


Lost housing (Wedge newspaper, June 1978)

So when we talk about preserving neighborhood character, keep in mind what downzoning can and can’t do: it can stop a new apartment building, but it won’t prevent your duplex from becoming a single-family house, and it won’t protect a low-end apartment from a high-end renovation. Downzoning doesn’t actually preserve what we have, and it can’t protect us from the future. But it can make our other housing problems worse.

There will be a public meeting hosted by CPED and Council Member Lisa Bender from 6-7:30 pm at 1200 W 26th Street (Jefferson Community School).

7 thoughts on “Downzoning Can’t Save Us From the Future

  1. Tom. Quinn

    Your unnecessary use of the term “rich jerk” does nothing to improve your article, but it does greatly diminish your credibility.

    1. Jeremy

      Epithets generally detract from the rhetorical integrity of an article, true. But the author’s credibility is irrelevant. What is relevant is the cogency of his thesis. Unless, that is, one conflates author with argument, thereby committing a logical fallacy.

      In this case, the argument is, in my estimation, persuasive.

    2. Eric AnondsonEric Anondson

      I find nothing at all to object to using that term. I think I got the gist of meaning just fine, a wealthy person oblivious to how their arrival irreversibly alters the character of their new surroundings such as gradually reducing the once-affordability of a neighborhood. And now the wealthy person has established themselves does everything in their means to prevent restoring the once-affordability to be restored.

      So I see it working just fine.

  2. Matt SteeleMatt Steele

    The 1995 Steven Prince complaint that attempted to eliminate a dwelling unit from the Wedge reminds me of this attempted-triplex on a R2B lot which was not allowed.

    The result? We can’t even modify the existing shells of buildings to accommodate updated arrangements reflective of contemporary family sizes and structures. The long-term outcome of this harms historic preservation, rather than hurting it, since building owners aren’t even free to get the highest and best use out of their building shells – without even modifying the exterior.

    One other clarification:
    “If a non-conforming apartment building is destroyed, by fire or other disaster, it can’t be rebuilt to its prior use.” Technically you can re-establish a legal non-conforming use within a one-year time period. But in reality, that’s an extremely high barrier given the timeline of development (financing, entitlements, diligence, environmental analysis, etc).

    Here’s a real world example that (you can guess) resulted in the net decrease of dwelling units in our city. Since this article was written last year, there was a proposal to build a duplex on this lot which is zoned R1A (but was a legal re-establishment of a non-conforming use). For unknown reasons, the deal fell apart and the lot went back up for sale. But that one-year clock expired in February 2016, which essentially eliminated the opportunity for a duplex (A duplex on 38th and Park! If I used vulgarity, this would be a time and place!) As a result, someone bought this lot and is currently building a single family home. The result? Minneapolis is less affordable.

  3. robsk

    Personally, I’m in favor of more zoning freedom. If upzoning is so difficult, yet desirable, then pressure needs to be placed on the bureaucrats to fix it.

    What’s wrong with an increase in medium density parcels in this neighborhood? R3 allows for “Multiple-family dwelling, five (5) units or more”. Is there really a market demand here for R5 or R6 or is this an anti single-family home argument?

    1. Alex CecchiniAlex Cecchini

      I won’t speak for the author, I’ll speak for myself – someone who lives in a detached single family home one neighborhood south of LHENA. I’d say most people don’t come from a place of disliking single family homes. It may be honest to say household sizes have dropped, no longer necessitating the space many old detached homes have (especially considering those homes also frequently had live-in service workers in addition to more kids and even extended family). It’s also fair to say detached homes are, all else equal, less energy efficient than attached homes or apartments. It’s fair to say that single family homes generally (not always!) have lawns that use potable water to maintain relative to multi-family buildings. And it’s fair to say a detached home costs slightly more to service per unit (or resident) with public infrastructure. And, it’s also true that a home is more likely to be converted down from a duplex or triplex to an expensive single family home (or, it’ll be torn down for a new, expensive home) if the zoning doesn’t allow for much else. These are all statements that may influence someone *disliking policies that favor* single family homes.

      In any case, while it’s technically true that R3 allows multi-family, there are a both technical (minor zoning details) and financial reasons that make it challenging to re-use existing structures difficult. A single family home or duplex on a standard lot zoned R3, while technically allowed to have 5+ units, is limited to 3 thanks to the minimum lot area per dwelling unit (1,500 sqft per unit on a 5,200 sqft lot). So you’re talking convert the structure up to a triplex at most, which may or may not be cost-effective. If that same parcel were zoned R5, one could fit enough units on it to justify the opportunity cost of tearing down an existing, revenue-generating structure for a new one.

      Similarly, we should keep in mind that even R5 doesn’t allow a ton of bulk when talking small lots (single or assembling a few together). Assembling 3 lots for an apartment building in an R5 zone could either cover 70% of the lot at 3 stories, or 50% of the lot at 4 stories (by-right, no variances). Neither of those sound too out of scale to any potential neighboring property, and R5 allows a bit more flexibility for other housing options (townhomes, etc). I would say there are many places in the core cities where an extra 10-30 apartment, condo, or townhouses have strong demand.

  4. GlowBOy

    Nothing wrong with single-family homes, but this is a dense neighborhood with high housing demand. If a potential buyer has enough cash to buy an existing SFH and keep it that way, fine.

    But in a neighborhood like this, it’s stupid to use the law to prevent SFHs from converting to the low and mid-rise multi-unit buildings that most effectively serve local demand. Upzoning would actually result in more “zoning freedom”. R5 designation doesn’t prevent SFHs. It just *allows* multi-unit buildings.

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