You may have heard about the proposal to re-zone the Lowry Hill East neighborhood of Minneapolis (commonly known as The Wedge, not to be confused with the defunct neighborhood newspaper or grocery co-op of the same name). Some people are opposed. I am one of them.
I’ve been meaning to write something specific about the merits of allowing dense(ish) development in neighborhood interiors. I previously wrote that society overplays the impacts of mismatches in development scale, and we overestimate the negative financial impacts of apartments near detached homes. But neither of those went into why it’s actually a good idea to zone for, even encourage, growth away from the busy commercial and transit corridors.
While it wasn’t the impetus for this post, the Wedge downzoning proposal offers a nice case study for the conversation. City staff cite several explicit policies in the Minneapolis Comprehensive Plan to support the downzoning proposal, including:
Policy 1.1.5 Ensure that land use regulations continue to promote development that is compatible with nearby properties, neighborhood character, and natural features; …
Policy 1.8: Preserve the stability and diversity of the city’s neighborhoods while allowing for increased density in order to attract and retain long-term residents and businesses.
1.1.8 Promote a range of housing types and residential densities, with highest density development concentrated in and along appropriate land use features.
Policy 1.10: Support development along Commercial Corridors that enhances the street’s character, fosters pedestrian movement, expands the range of goods and services available, and improves the ability to accommodate automobile traffic
1.10.5 Encourage the development of high-density housing on Commercial Corridors.
1.10.6 Encourage the development of medium-density housing on properties adjacent to properties on Commercial Corridors.
These policies are not unique to Minneapolis, and we are updating this comprehensive plan over the next two years. This is a perfect opportunity to challenge and change these conventional planning norms. Here’s why.
Traffic Noise & Air Pollution Along Major Corridors
Think of the busy streets in Minneapolis. Hennepin Ave, Lake Street, West Broadway, University Ave, Central Ave, I could go on. They’re busy. Perhaps not as busy as they once were, but they’re still magnets for traffic of all kinds: cars, buses, freight trucks, even light rail.
That traffic pollutes the air, and make noise. Some vehicles are worse than others, in different ways, and at different times of the day. Plenty of studies show proximity to arterials matters for noise and pollution levels, and both come with health impacts.
This isn’t rocket science; most people explicitly state a desire to live on a “quiet side street.” Even being 400 meters from an arterial (about 1,300 feet, or two long Minneapolis blocks) reduces exposure to pollutants by 15-25%. And despite what people claim, dense development in neighborhood interiors just doesn’t pose the noise threat that a street with 25,000 cars a day does.
Should we encourage electric vehicles, hybrid buses, and streetcars in place of the dirty ones on those busy streets? Absolutely. Should we re-make our major streets to prioritize cleaner, quieter modes, even at the expense of capacity for (mostly) single-occupant vehicles? Definitely. But there is almost no feasible scenario where the major corridors won’t be louder and more heavily polluted than side streets over the next 50 years. So, for the sake of public health, let’s give apartment- and condo-dwellers the option to live where the heavy traffic isn’t.
Safety Out Your Front Door
Major streets are dangerous. The vast majority of car-on-bike and car-on-pedestrian crashes in Minneapolis (and St Paul) happen on major streets.
When my wife and I were searching for a home over two years ago, the (perhaps irrational) fear of our kid or dogs darting out from the front door into a busy street kept us from buying a house along Hennepin Ave. Wedge residents of the 1970s recognized high-traffic, high-speed streets were detrimental to quality of life and safety.
The Wedge Newspaper archives show they (understandably, rightly) pushed to calm “racetracks” in the neighborhood, but clearly didn’t finish the job calming Hennepin and Lyndale Avenues once things were fine on the streets they lived on. I find it extremely frustrating that the dangerous arterials residents pushed even more traffic to are exactly the places they prescribed (along with city planners) any new apartments should be developed.
Beyond traffic safety concerns, allowing development inside neighborhoods helps bring more foot traffic to the sidewalks, and more eyes on the street from windows of bigger buildings. I have little doubt my alleyway, flanked by apartment and condo windows with residents who come and go at all hours of the day, is far safer than one lined by garage doors. The same can be said for the sidewalk out front.
Again, should we be changing the design of arterials to bring speeds down, to lower the risk of collisions with pedestrians and bicyclists, and make crossing the street easier? Absolutely! But in the meantime, new development should be allowed in the places people pay a premium for thanks to actual and perceived safety.
This may or may not be specific to Minneapolis, but take a look at this map of our parks. Most of our park space, including the areas surrounding lakes and creeks, is not located directly adjacent to major corridors. I think it’s a good idea to encourage as much housing as possible literally steps from open space. Or, put another way, the people who have the least amount of private open space (typically denser development) should get priority proximity to our excellent parks. More of this, less of this.
I believe planners overrate the benefit of having your front door right along a transit corridor. I live in CARAG roughly halfway between two fairly frequent bus routes, the 4 and 6. When I need to take a bus home from downtown, I have the benefit of being able to take whichever bus comes first and having a similarly short walk to my house once I exit the bus. If I lived right along the 6, I’d likely pass up hopping on the 4 if it came first because the 8-10 minute walk from the stop nearest my home wouldn’t be worth it.
The equal proximity to multiple lines works for departures as well. The 6 can take me from my home southwest to Linden Hills, 50th & France, and Southdale. The 4 can take me down Bryant and then to destinations along Penn or Lyndale. While being in the center of the neighborhood makes neither bus route right out my door, my total job (or other) accessibility with a 5 minute or less walk to transit is much greater than if I lived right on either corridor.
This benefit holds less weight the further from the center of the city where planning to maximize density near, say, a light rail station actually makes sense given the lack of other transit options. But most of Minneapolis has frequent or somewhat frequent bus or rail service on a half-mile grid. Let’s let people take advantage of that if they want to!
Walkability Requires Pervasive Density
The City is also proposing zoning changes in the Wedge in the form of an expanded Uptown Pedestrian-Oriented Overlay District. There have been and will be others that are re-examined. Full disclosure, as a member of the Pedestrian Advisory Committee, and as a private citizen, I supported the Uptown PO proposal.
However, if the city wants walkability via development – the type of buildings that have the density, form, layout, and lack of parking that make walking along the major corridors pleasant at all hours – we should examine what other parts of our code hold that back. We can’t sit around and scratch our heads, wondering why developers build drive-thru banks or single-story pharmacies with massive surface parking lots. If we want parking-lite or parking-free mixed-use developments, we need a built-in customer base within walking or biking distance – a customer base so large that developers can’t ignore the opportunity cost of building housing or more commercial space on that surface lot. That means more people living in our neighborhoods, and more than just a few four-to-six story buildings along the commercial corridors.
Development Potential Isn’t Zero-Sum
You may have read that last post and thought “Sure, but any development in the neighborhood interior would just replace proposals we’re currently seeing on the corridors, so we wouldn’t get any more residents anyway.”
I don’t buy that. Even with the generous zoning, how many planners or residents anticipated 2008 Bryant (10 units, 19 bedrooms), 3621 Bryant (4 units, 16 bedrooms), or the infamous Rocket House (4 units, 12 bedrooms)? Likely few! These developments – small, stick frame construction without structured parking – serve a different market than your typical four-to-six story apartment building. They have different cost structures, risk, and amenities, and represent the type of small-scale redevelopment that can happen when small builders can snatch up individual homes that would otherwise be flipped to an up-scale single family home.
The same could be said about zoning that allows for conversion to uses beyond a duplex. There are plenty of large homes in Minneapolis zoned R1/A or R2/B. If they were zoned R3+ instead, someone could easily create a few extra units (at much lower cost than building a brand new unit in a 100 unit building!) out of the basement and/or attic. Again, these units will meet a different sub-market than what the big builders consider worth their time and cost structure, even if the return on investment percentage is roughly the same as those bigger projects.
It’s the same logic the City of Minneapolis used when it passed the ADU ordinance and re-allowed duplexes on standard city lot sizes in existing R2/R2B. We can allow growth in more and different ways that serve the needs of potential and existing residents.
We should keep in mind the demographics we serve by limiting dense redevelopment inside neighborhoods. Detached housing – the type we seek to “protect” under current policies – is overwhelmingly owner-occupied, and the flip is true for multi-family housing. Renter-occupied housing is disproportionately occupied by people below the poverty line:
… and disproportionately occupied by people of color:
Yes, most of the new apartments going up house well-off white male 20-somethings. Look past that. Imagine who new apartments today will house in 20-40 years. Pay attention to the demographics of the people living in the 60s walkups everyone hates so much. Heck, even some new construction, market-rate development has 1-Bedroom units starting at $1,095/month – “affordable” (using the 30% of gross income rule of thumb) to an individual making $43,800 a year (or, two adults making $10.50/hour). A brand-new studio is affordable to an individual making $17/hour working 40 hours a week. That seems…. decent, right?
And remember that if our zoning code allowed it, we could affirmatively integrate public housing (or subsidized, affordable – via tax credits, inclusionary zoning, or other methods) in stable neighborhood interiors across the city rather than continuing to place them at dangerous, polluted intersections like Franklin and Portland, a stone’s throw from freeway on-ramps and the pollution of I-35W.
The US Supreme Court recently ruled that arguments based on disparate impact are allowed in housing cases showing discriminatory effects, even without discriminatory intent. How long until the segregated living patterns, and resulting health impacts, thanks to Minneapolis zoning (city-wide and even at the micro, neighborhood level) are challenged in court? They should be!
The obvious question to all this is: what amount of density are we talking about for neighborhood interiors here? High-rises? 84 foot tall, 6-story apartment buildings? Three-to-four story apartments? Townhomes? Rocket Houses?
If you’ve read my work before, you know I lean toward “I don’t really care.” I honestly don’t know what the “right” amount of bulk, height, or unit density is for our neighborhoods. But it’s not hard to think of a compromise between “high-rise next to single-family homes” and our existing structure where we drop to only allowing a single-family home or duplex a block away from almost every major street. In a previous post, I suggested allowing R5 across the city, with new development combining no more than 3 or 4 standard Minneapolis lots. An up-zoning like this paired with stricter controls on variances and conditional use permits wouldn’t allow mega-structures in our neighborhoods:
… but it would go a long way toward allowing inexpensive new construction in the places many people would prefer to live but currently have few options given other constraints on their home search.
At the end of the day, as a fairly privileged white homeowner, I ask myself whether I’d prefer to live on a busy street or a quieter side street. The answer is the latter, and my family was lucky enough to be in a position to find a place that met that desire. Everyone should question why it’s fair to make most new residents live in the places the most privileged existing residents shun. Let’s change this outdated, unfair policy.