Dense Development Belongs in Neighborhood Interiors Too

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.


Images taken from “Population-Level Exposure to Particulate Air Pollution during Active Travel: Planning for Low-Exposure, Health-Promoting Cities”

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.


Scan of an article from the September, 1976 edition of The Wedge newspaper

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.

Park Access

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.

Transit Flexibility

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.

Lyndale 4-Plex

Yet another example of modern single-lot multi-family, this one right on Lyndale Ave (image taken from Craigslist advertisement)

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.

Disparate Impact

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:


Fears of large lot-coverage, 84′ tall R6 apartments in small-scale development are mostly unfounded.

… 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.

33 thoughts on “Dense Development Belongs in Neighborhood Interiors Too

  1. Sean Hayford OlearySean Hayford Oleary

    I’m having some trouble with your assertion that major streets are more dangerous for a given road user based on the data that more crashes occur there. More everything occurs there — Hennepin or Lyndale has 100-200x the traffic of an adjacent minor street. Just because it is more likely that a crash will occur on Hennepin Avenue today than on Dupont Ave doesn’t mean that you are more likely to be hurt by choosing one or the other.

    On the other hand, because more crashes occur there, you could probably argue that you’re more likely to suffer property damage due to a crash, by your property being on a busy street.

    On the whole, I think multi-family housing is simply better suited to busier streets. Depending on the design of the building, there is little or no living area on the first floor, most directly exposed to traffic. They can be integrated with first-floor commercial space to provide a more lively street presence. Apartment-dwellers are more likely to use transit than SFH owners, and it provides more direct access to the transit lines. The buildings are better-constructed than single-family homes and can better insulate from noise. Finally, especially larger buildings tend to have systems for ongoing maintenance, and don’t seem to suffer from being devalued by traffic, and are not as easily neglected as an individual home might be.

    Finally, as a political matter, it seems much easier to build neighborhood consensus around dense multi-family as a buffer from traffic.

    1. Adam MillerAdam Miller

      Those sound like reasons not to put single family homes on the busy streets, not reasons not to put denser multi-family on non-busy street (except transit access).

      1. Sean Hayford OlearySean Hayford Oleary

        Good point. I am conflating the two. Maybe it’s an inherent skepticism of Alex’s claim that development potential isn’t zero-sum. In my mind, it does make sense to guide the type of housing that is better suited to major streets, to major streets. If we fill that up, by all means, let’s go back and think about how to go deeper into the neighborhoods. But as of right now, there is a lot of under-developed property on these major corridors.

        1. Alex CecchiniAlex Cecchini Post author

          At the very least, my point is *not* that we should intentionally force new single family home construction along corridors, or to force MFH onto side streets until and then re-develop the corridors once every SFH is gone. It’s that we shouldn’t favor one or the other in either location.

          And, it’s hard to rectify the claims that development potential is zero sum AND the many, many instances of displacement across our city (and inner suburbs). There is clearly more demand for housing at many price points than our zoning strategy (and the cost of a new unit in a 4-6 story building with structured parking along a major street) is accommodating. I’d rather a new apartment building with 24, $1,000-1,400 per month 1-2 BR units in place of 3 single family homes soak up the demand for people with said budget than someone simply buying a run-down apartment building, slapping some new cabinets and engineered hardwood in and raising the rent. And, a developer buying a few homes has much less of a chance of forcibly displacing residents because they have a higher chance of being owned.

          There are thousands upon thousands of single family lots in this city, in various stages of repair and value. A developer looking to combine 1-3 of them will have a much easier time doing so than dealing with potentially more complicated land deals along commercial corridors. It’s why I highlighted all these small developments on lots zoned R4-R6, off the major streets, with designs nobody could have predicted. If we think there’s a fixed demand for new residents per year in Minneapolis and that our “growth on corridors” zoning regime met that demand, why did we allow ADUs? Why re-allow duplexes in R2/B on standard lot sizes? The city explicitly stated that these housing types allow for lower-rent and/or different living situations than the standard multi-family buildings going up provide – allowing more people of different incomes and with different tastes/needs to live in our awesome city.

          And again, yes, there are plenty of vacant or under-developed lots along transit corridors screaming to be torn down for a 4-story apartment with a cafe against the sidewalk. Go for it, developers! I’m not advocating we stopping you.

    2. Mike SonnMike Sonn

      “Finally, as a political matter, it seems much easier to build neighborhood consensus around dense multi-family as a buffer from traffic.”

      That’s pretty much the point of this post?

      Also, that’s some COLD stuff right there. Of course it is easier politically – the landed gentry of the interior side streets are using every political means available to stop even the slightest upzoning. Again, the point of this post.

      1. Sean Hayford OlearySean Hayford Oleary

        I guess I don’t follow. From my read, the audience of this post was urban enthusiasts, not the “landed gentry” who may need convincing.

        Or do you mean that the point is that the current political climate shouldn’t be a factor, because there are other good reasons to do it?

        1. Mike SonnMike Sonn

          The audience is all the above. Sadly, only the urban enthusiasts will read it (or at least scan it).

          And the current political climate is most definitely a factor but we shouldn’t let that limit us. We should push against it.

    3. Alex CecchiniAlex Cecchini Post author

      I’ll only respond to the safety issue. Yes, I posted a map without detailed analysis of injury/death rates per pedestrian/bike trip or mile by each facility type. In my head, I’m quite sure that almost no ped/bike deaths occur on any side streets. It makes intuitive sense to me that the risk of being hit per minute spent on a busy street is higher, and vehicle speeds (and types, heavy buses/trucks don’t often travel on side-streets) make the risk of death per collision higher.

      But at a visceral level, people avoid living on busy streets because of safety concerns. For example, I will often sit on my front stoop and let my 2.5 year old and 2 golden retrievers wander around on the sidewalk in front of me. I might do some gardening or check my phone and I’m mostly confident he’ll be safe. Anecdotally, I see people in 3-story walk-up apartments doing the same on their front stoops with their kids (yes, families do live in small apartment buildings!). I would never have been afforded that comfort if I lived on Hennepin Ave a few blocks over, where vehicle speeds easily exceed 30 mph. I don’t think I’m alone in this perception or fear. And even if it’s irrational or the data doesn’t back it up (I doubt that), if most people feel that way, it’s cruel to use zoning to say that people in apartments don’t deserve to have the same irrational fear satisfied.

      1. Sean Hayford OlearySean Hayford Oleary

        My skepticism on the safety point is largely based on the 1990s study of relative risk of bicycling on different facilities. This is usually the basis of the statistic that riding on the sidewalk is 20-ish times as dangerous as riding in the street.

        Among other findings, Moritz found that a minor street without bike facilities had a higher risk than a major street. (See summary table visualized here). I don’t know how much that has held up in other or more recent research, but the result is conceivable, especially if you’re only looking at raw numbers of crashes relative to traffic volumes, and not severity — people behave much more unpredictably on minor streets, there are often worse sightlines and more access points.

        I think your perception point is fair. I guess my assumption is that most people who are reluctant to live on major streets are also the sort of people who would really be set on a single-family home. Maybe that’s just a result of the available options… but your own case illustrates this. You wanted a quiet street, and also sought out a single family home.

        1. Alex

          You could drive a hummer through the selection bias in that “study” — it’s based on a survey of LAB members! This is from the abstract: “The “average” respondent was a 48-year-old, married (66 percent) male (80 percent) professional (48 percent) who rode 4670 km in 1996.”

          I understand that this study is widely cited, but that don’t make it not junk science. It’s primarily useful as an example of the utter lack of non-motorized transportation safety research.

      2. Rosa

        forget the sidewalk – we have to worry about speeding cars coming up across the sidewalk and hitting the house, on the busy fast streets. It happened down the street from us recently. I have seen some amazing car-flipping accidents on Park/Portland over the years and here on Bloomington we installed a knee wall after a driver managed to take out a parking sign and a boulevard tree in front of our house.

    4. Scott Shaffer

      “Finally, as a political matter, it seems much easier to build neighborhood consensus around dense multi-family as a buffer from traffic.”

      If you’re suggesting that dwellers of detached residences and homeowners are a stronger political force than multi-family dwellers and renters, I’d point to some demographics: renters outnumber owners in Lowry Hill, Lowry Hill East, Whittier, CARAG, East Isles, and ECCO. In fact, only 5.8% of Lowry Hill East residents live in owner-occupied detached single-family homes.

      But more importantly, I think it’s immoral to have a strategy of using one group’s homes to protect another group’s homes from noxious and dangerous things.

      1. Sean Hayford OlearySean Hayford Oleary

        “If you’re suggesting that dwellers of detached residences and homeowners are a stronger political force than multi-family dwellers and renters …”

        I guess I’m not exactly suggesting that, in part because I had understood the article to be applicable to all neighborhoods, not just Wedge/Lowry Hill area. But you make a good point about how dramatically skewed toward renters those neighborhoods are. In my head, I was picturing more of a situation of an owner-dominated neighborhood (whether by actual numbers or by disproportionate clout). My understanding is that even in the neighborhoods you list, the SFH owners often wield a vastly larger amount of power in the form and development of the neighborhood than their numbers would suggest.

        But I’m not totally sure that it’s an us vs. them situation there, between MF renters and SFH owners — where each group wants more housing units like their own. I suspect many MF residents may not be particularly excited about more apartments, especially if they rely on on-street parking. Some may also fear a lively market for new rentals leading to upgrades and rent hikes in their own units. To be clear: I don’t feel this way personally. I am in favor of more apartments. But I think they should first go along major streets, where more residents can benefit from the walkable businesses and transit, and where the entire neighborhood can benefit from the buffer of larger structures.

        “I think it’s immoral to have a strategy of using one group’s homes to protect another group’s homes from noxious and dangerous things.”

        All things being equal, yes. But all things are not equal between a one-and-a-half story, 1200 sq ft wooden house and a 40,000 sq ft concrete structure with no residential units on the first floor.

        1. Joseph TottenJoseph Totten

          I think this comment highlights the concerns and differences here.

          1 – Sean’s plan is really the best we can hope for in Edina, Richfield and other cities. That doesn’t mean the Wedge should be downzoned.

          2 – Sean, you keep making the comment that there are no dwelling units on the first floor of any banned multifamily, but what of townhomes, what of some of the smaller apartment developments (5 units almost always have at least one on the ground floor, and use only a lot). You keep arguing against what seems like 6 floor, 250 unit, 1st floor retail and parking buildings, which yes, would be a VERY jarring thing to have on any side street, but the photo of the Lyndale development has living space on the ground floor, as well.

          3 – Yes, small developments have been made harder by zoning and financing in recent decades. The developments of 3 floors, with two units a floor, on one or two normal lots; these are what I think everyone can handle in an urban neighborhood. Maybe in Richfield or Bloomington, with more 1 or 1.5 floor houses, maybe a 2.5 floor building with 5 total units is more appropriate. This does not mean that I as a renter shouldn’t be able to pay any amount of money to rent an apartment in a neighborhood, and that my best use is to be a wall between homeowners and a busy road. By arguing this you are telling me I do not deserve a block party, or to know the neighborhood cat, or that I am not worthy of helping supervise the neighborhood kids (who also lived on the first floor of an apartment building). So lets rephrase this, as “is there ANY kind of apartment that would be possible to fit in the interior of a neighborhood, if so what? Could our zoning address that? Is it an all or nothing issue?” I don’t think anyone wants to build uptown style apartments of 70 feet high in the Wedge interior, so lets consider the small buildings. What could be acceptable?

          1. Sean Hayford OlearySean Hayford Oleary

            1. Yes, my background watching these issues in detail is from Richfield, Edina, and far-south Mpls. As a casual observer, however, there certainly does seem to be plenty of conflict with SFH homeowners even in these very dense neighborhoods in central areas of Minneapolis. So I don’t think it’s completely baseless to consider the political sell, even if it seems more applicable to lower-density areas.

            2. You are correct that what I am picturing is a larger-scale, 4-to-6 story building. But if you agree that a 6-story building would be problematic in a predominantly SFH side street block, why are you saying the “down-zoning” is problematic? It appears from the Council memo that 6-story buildings are what are currently allowed in the neighborhood interior by the R6 zoning. The new zoning varies in intensity, but generally allows medium-density apartments and townhomes. All but a small handful are staying at R3 or higher.

            3. So yes, I have no aversion to townhomes, rowhouses, or very carefully designed smaller-scale apartment buildings on any block. You make a really good point about neighborhood participation being easier with smaller-scale things farther into the neighborhood. (Although larger buildings allow for “internal” neighbor dynamics, especially when communal spaces are provided.)

            Even R3 can be pretty dense in some contexts. I need to snap a picture of the progress at 56th and Nicollet, where there is a new apartment building going up. (It’s OR1, but subject to the same max height and bulk as R3.) It’s great to see dense housing go in along this high-frequency transit corridor, but it looks comical to see this 35 ft building wedged between two single-story structures, each probably about 800 sq ft.

            1. Joseph TottenJoseph Totten

              2. I’m not saying anything, I’m taking issue with your lack of nuance in your comments and saying that SFH are better uses of our side streets than apartments, that apartments should be relegated to our major thoroughfares only. Making this a discussion on SCALE of apartments and pointing out that few buildings would be affected as direly as the predictions seem is very different than “I think multi-family housing is simply better suited to busier streets.”

              2a. R3 is innappropriate for this area, 1.0 Maximum FAR is actually very limiting, R4 is a more palatable base in such a close in urban neighborhood, and R5 actually has the same setback and height restrictions… just a higher allowable FAR (1.5 vs 2.0) Otherwise it is simply the number of neighbors you are allowed to have in a building. With R3 limiting 1 unit per 1,500 sq ft (so 3 units in practicality for most single lots) R4 being 1250 can get you 4, and R5 having no further minimum lot size PER unit, allows small units, built to affordable sizes and scales for a variety of incomes.

              1. Sean Hayford OlearySean Hayford Oleary

                I think multi-family is better suited than single-family homes to major streets. As Adam pointed out, there is little in my reasoning to suggest that they are incompatible with minor streets (other than political acceptance issues when the street is currently dominated by single-family homes).

                I believe MF is more suitable than SFH to major streets because:

                1. Larger structure — although I’m certainly picturing the larger-scale, 50+ unit building, even a small apartment building is almost always larger than a house. Larger structure makes for better sound separation for the residents in it, and the surrounding neighbors.

                2. Potential for mixed use, benefitting street life of the major street

                3. Less ground-floor living space, who might be impacted

                4. More direct access to transit, which is more likely to benefit apartment-dwellers than SFH-dwellers. (And even if the rates were identical, would benefit many more.)

                5. More direct access to walkable destinations on the street for more residents

                In the case of the Wedge area, there is ample underdeveloped land on the major streets — single-story commercial, parking lots, auto shops, even a couple of strip malls. I see nothing wrong with guiding those areas, and the areas that already house larger-scale residential, for the larger-scale residential, while more interior areas go down to lower designations on a per-block, context-sensitive basis.

                This is not a radical idea — and the buffer concept has been taken much farther than simple placement on major streets. In the Mill District, affordable housing was basically used to decorate the sides of a parking ramp. (This goes too far in that concept, IMO)

                This is also the way the majority of Minneapolis zoning is set up today. There are certainly exceptions, four-plexes, etc — but overwhelmingly, our multi-family housing exists along major streets. There is some cost, that you note, but I believe that by and large, this offers benefit to the residents of those buildings — and the entire community benefits by keeping a critical mass of people and vibrancy along major streets. See the hundreds of units going in along the Hiawatha corridor — that area would be unfeasible to house SFH without a berm and sound wall, yet apartments like Longfellow Station are able to provide an attractive presence and a great use of space. And many more residents are able to use the LRT than the ~15 SFHs you might be able to get there instead.

                1. Adam MillerAdam Miller

                  I’m not sure there’s really much disagreement here. It would be great to get more mixed-use, large-scale multifamily on the major streets replacing current low-intensity land uses.

                  It would also be great to get more “missing middle” multifamily in neighborhood interiors.

                2. Joseph TottenJoseph Totten

                  And I disagree with that statement, especially for “Missing Middle” housing Minneapolis (and other cities) need to encourage.

                  1. While larger structures, this also necessitates that there is less of a setback, ensuring that units are actually much closer to traffic. Additionally, few apartments in the missing middle are built of concrete and steel, they are wood framed through and through (until you hit 6 floors, in which case they usually have a base level of concrete).

                  2. Yes, there is better potential for mixed use, but look at these retail zones, there is a lot of parking provide for public use, even in dense areas. These areas and stores cannot be sustained solely by their tenants, and therefore there must be density (beyond single family homes) outside these areas. Uptown is an example of nearing this break-even point, with more parking-lite structures being built, and with the surrounding pre-war walk ups in the surrounding areas.

                  3. In a large, new, shiny multi-use building, yes. In a missing middle 6 plex? Probably not.

                  4. This is addressed in Alex’s post. In Richfield, of along the LRT, where transit lines are sparse? Yes. In the Wedge? In Summit-University? In Cathedral Hill? The lines are pretty close together, and living between them actually provides greater access and flexibility than relying on one.

                  5. Yes, again with mixed uses, but I don’t particularly mind walking a block or two to get away from traffic noise. Why should I not be allowed to live in a neighborhood interior? Or is my apartment rent only of value if it is subsidizing the lease of the downstairs restaurant?

                  Why not both? Why must every new apartment be along major roads? I get that we should encourage these areas to redevelop, but can’t we also allow people like myself the option to not live on a busy road? I don’t want a busy road, I would like an apartment, honestly, I’m okay without mixed use, and would prefer a smaller building because then I get to see and know my neighbors better. I don’t think I am an unreasonable person. Please correct me if I am.

                  I don’t think we should say “They sinned more! At least we aren’t wrapping a parking ramp” to justify this. In fact, your use of this itself as an example illustrates that it is unethical to use apartment dwellers (usually with far fewer options for housing) to screen single family homes and the families that can afford to occupy them from the noxious streets. Using this argument acknowledges that the street is not good, that it is better to be screened, and using other people and their families, and their homes to do so strikes me as horribly tonedeaf at best.

                  Every station on the LRT is a transit hub, different than a bus route. Hiawatha is probably a poor example, as I would doubt anyone would classify the corridor as vibrant. But lets also look within the LRT walkshed, if the entire area of a 1/2 mile radius allowed up to six units, there would be plenty of single family homes left, but there would also be more apartments than could be built than in one mega-project supported by the neighbors to screen themselves from what they view as a noxious neighbor.

                3. Sean Hayford OlearySean Hayford Oleary

                  I agree with Adam’s statement… I think in general, we’re not that far off. Joe, I think the points of contention seem to be:

                  a.) What qualifies as missing middle

                  b.) The issues of apartment structures as screening elements.

                  On a.) I guess I just disagree. I consider townhomes and other things allowed in R3 to be an acceptable missing middle. I know there are getting to be more examples of 6-10 unit small apartment buildings (like the example Alex shows on Lyndale). As of yet, I’m just not sold that these are “middle” density, or that they offer particular benefits over larger-scale apartment buildings.

                  b.) I think the major difference for me between the apartments screening a parking ramp versus apartments defining a major street is that the apartment-dwellers don’t really benefit from the parking ramp. In fact, in that particular building, it eliminates any possibility of communal green space. It looks like they get some pretty sweet pricing on structured parking ($55/mo downtown), but that’s the only discernible benefit. I think we agree that being on a major street offers some serious benefits alongside the potential disadvantages.

                  On your #2: I’m not sure how much the businesses of uptown benefit by their medium-higher density surrounding neighborhoods, versus being a regional draw. I assume you can’t sustain an Apple Store or an Arc’teryx store with just walkability from six-plexes. There is no reason a mixed-use development can’t also account for traffic from outside the neighborhood (by bus, bike, and car). Boulevard Apartments at 54th and Lyndale hits nearly all the points I see as ideal, on a fairly small scale: no living space on first floor, interior parking for residents and customers, beautiful street presence, and great access for residents to transit and neighborhood businesses.

                  1. Joe T.

                    Logged out… didn’t wanna fix it, sorry.

                    For me it is somewhat personal, in that I have now lived in 4 different apartments. I was openly shunned by neighbors when I was on a busy street, and welcomed to the block party, invited for crafts events, etc when I was in a neighborhood. When people see that I live there, in a building no larger than a house, keeping an eye out when kids squeal as they run around outside and checking if it ever seems like it is not a sound of pure joy, they accept me. When I live in a building secluded from the neighbors by no more than an alley? I am a problem, and the attitudes of the neighbors express that.

                    So on a) I can say that being in a smaller building allows me to exit faster, if there is a need to intervene on the street, I can get there. Additionally, there’s been research establishing that travel time is usually considered from YOUR door to your destination, not the apartment building’s door. Thus, smaller buildings allow for more trips to be taken and renters to be more integrated into the neighborhood at large (I actually found internal neighbor relations rather pleasant in a small building as well, allowed everyone to know everyone). Having spent a good deal of time in both, I much prefer the smaller buildings.

                    b) I also don’t see a huge detriment from being used as a screen for a parking ramp. Just no communal green space a few blocks from great parks. On busy streets I see the detriments of the street, and don’t think that all apartments should be relegated to these locations. There are costs, and benefits to each, no doubt, but I don’t think that saying that I being in an apartment, have to have the same cost-benefit calculations, is reasonable.

                    I have a different cost-benefit analysis to my living than you seem to have for yours (or mine), and when you state these things, you are saying that my optimal solution is not appropriate, or that it has a set supply and you are unwilling to allow more until the major roads are filled.

                    Your link shows me a building I would probably not like to live in actually… I would much prefer to be in a block like this, and I don’t see why that is controversial to you. Just as I don’t think you have seen why your statements are controversial to me.


                    1. Sean Hayford OlearySean Hayford Oleary

                      Again, I think you have great anecdotes from your personal experience, and I appreciate the benefits. What I don’t get is why you see this as a personal attack on where you “should” live, or even an attack on this housing as it currently exists.

                      I don’t, for example, think that more single-family homes in greenfields are a responsible way to develop. (I think most people on feel that way.) Yet I live in a single-family home that was, in its time, built on a greenfield — and I don’t begrudge other people buying or enjoying the single-family homes that are there today, and I have no desire to replace them wholesale. That doesn’t mean that it’s a responsible or good idea to build more in that same pattern.

                      Middle-density apartment buildings obviously create fewer environmental and tax-base issues compared to single-family homes, but I think my attitude is similar: there is nothing wrong with them, and nothing wrong with living in them. But it doesn’t make sense to me expend political energy and will to guide an existing block of single-family homes to, bit by bit, densify and fragment the existing form.

                      When it comes to new development, I’d rather see 50 or 100 units creating a great presence along a major street than fight a contentious battle to get 10 units in on a side street. In my experience, it is often small existing buildings that are some of the most affordable, so I don’t think people are being priced out of the limited supply. On the other hand, many are paying very high rents to live in a more amenity-rich larger new building on a major street.

                    2. Joe T

                      Reading through the thread, I don’t see where you mentioned any appreciation of these anecdotes before, or my arguments on the benefits of multi-family being spread throughout the city instead of concentrated solely on thoroughfares. If this has been a misunderstanding on my part I apologize.

                      We hear IMMENSE pushback from neighbors about these mega projects, but within the past year, my parents were able to add a unit to an apartment building they owned, with every neighbor within the required notification radius signing off on the slight variance, and no one showing to speak in opposition. We gained a unit in Saint Paul, with some minor changes to the zoning code, and there was absolutely no fuss, no large worries, no angry letters, no energy expended by “urban advocates”. By downzoning to R3 (or many cities’ equivalents) you make that hill impossible for a small landowner to climb, suddenly you aren’t asking for a variance of one parking stall, but a parking stall and FAR and lot square footage and setbacks. Fun fact, my family was actually rejected due to some zoning confusion at the first go, so if these types of downzoning happened, I wouldn’t have lived in my apartment in St. Paul. I wouldn’t have helped get my brother with special needs back from visiting with our parents, because I wouldn’t be in the same building. I understand that for the headaches that accrue, 100 units feels much better, but neighbors don’t fight these developments (or at least less than they do) like 6 floors along a main road, you sit down at the block party and say “We have too much space in the basement of the building, we were thinking of building a new unit, any thoughts?” or, “we own that house, the roof is bad and the foundation settled a little diagonally, we were thinking of replacing it with a small apartment building”. So while you’re fighting for the 200 units on Lyndale, other people are building one, or two, or ten with little resistance and a lot of neighbor participation. People do build small where they can, so lets let them.

                      Why I take this personally? Because it would have affected me personally. Because this is the same reasoning that we hear from neighbors about the new 100+ unit buildings that go up. You are not even responding to the scoffs I get at neighborhood meetings when I would say my address, and someone says that my voice doesn’t count, because I rent.

                      You note that a piecemeal, fragmented urban form is not your ideal. Nor is tearing down all SFHs to create apartment blocks. I would agree, but what if we zoned the area all R5 (not a serious proposal, fyi. R3 in the whole of the wedge… maybe)? There would be plenty of SFHs to choose from in every neighborhood.

                      On your final point, this is true for now in most places, but gentrification isn’t usually thought of when there is a new apartment building down the block, it is when your rents go up. I would prefer to expand the stock of these more affordable units so that if and when that does carry over, there is a greater and more fragmented supply. I would prefer more small landlords be able to have a 5 unit building. I would prefer more people being brought into neighborhoods and watching after kids playing on the sidewalk. None of this is accomplished by working our butts off for a 100+ unit building, sometimes it is just better to allow those blocks immediately affected by the change to sit down and talk. There is no role for me in most of those, but I don’t need a role, we as a city just need to step back and allow it.

  2. Anton SchiefferAnton Schieffer

    Lots of great stuff here, thanks for the research that went into this post. It made me realize that almost every building I’ve lived in has been on a quiet side street in the interior of a neighborhood. I’ve lived in several brownstone buildings which could not be built today due to parking requirements.

    It would be great to see more upzoning taking place in neighborhood interiors. Even those “high density” residential zones like R5 are quite restrictive about the size and mass that can be built there. There’s no good reason why large chunks of very desirable neighborhoods in this city are covered in R2. If we want to build more “missing middle” housing to help with our current housing shortage, we need to zone for it.

  3. Max HailperinMax Hailperin

    I just belatedly started reading Jane Jacobs and am really enjoying having you bring many of the same issues up in very concrete form in my own city and the present time. Thanks!

  4. David MarkleDavid Markle

    As an on-the-spot resident and observer, I can report that the would-be traffic calming changes in the configuration of Cedar Avenue on the West Bank–an arterial route and county highway–have only made conditions worse as to congestion, noise, air pollution and risky behavior on the part of motorists. The same is true for Riverside Avenue during peak afternoon hours.

    I understand that pre-reconfiguration data indicated that the Cedar/Riverside intersection was the most dangerous in town for pedestrians and one of the worst for cyclists. Haven’t heard or seen anything about the recent record.

  5. Wanderer

    I’m really glad to see Alex’s argument being made–it’s applicable in many places around the country. I think in many instances there’s a kind of default assumption that the place for apartments is on the main streets, the arterials. That’s an assumption that negates the quality of life concerns of the residents. It would also seem to push towards the younger, more transient renters that older homeowners often complain about. The young and the restless will be less concerned about living on a noisy, high-traffic arterial than more settled folks. Really nice apartment areas, e.g. Nob Hill in San Francisco, the Upper West Side of Manhattan or Rittenhouse Square in Philadelphia, are built as a solid district.

  6. Eric AnondsonEric Anondson

    Bringing up a tangent topic for adding density in the interior of neighborhoods, there is nothing inherently negative to ringing neighborhood parks with density (such as Vienna does). Some the worlds most livable cities do exactly that. Our urban parks should not be looked at as in need to being defended from people, maybe we should also look at urban neighborhood parks as targets of density.

    1. Sean Hayford OlearySean Hayford Oleary

      I agree, this is very pleasant and seems like a place where it makes sense to justify density. Powderhorn Terrace has just a few buildings, but is a nice pre-war example — as are the buildings by Loring Park.

      In more recent times, we also have the density around Centennial Lakes Park in Edina, and the pseudo-parks of the 21st century, Gold Medal Park and The Yard/DTE Commons — all flanked by apartments.

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