Big Week at Minneapolis City Planning Commission

On Tuesday, November 1, the Minneapolis City Planning Commission will be voting on three important items that will help shape the future of the city.

The first item is a measure to allow intentional communities in Minneapolis. MSPyimby supports the motion, which would create more flexibility for residents who want to live in Minneapolis. According to city staff:

“The current occupancy regulations of a dwelling unit located in the R1 through R3 Districts allow for one family plus up to two unrelated persons living together as a permanent household, provided that the family plus the unrelated persons shall not exceed a total of five persons.”

From this interpretation, one “family” plus “up to two unrelated persons” means that no more than four unrelated individuals can live in a single unit of housing. There are currently many people living in houses who would be considered unlawful residents.

Considering the population growth of Minneapolis in recent years, this ordinance needs to be amended to allow for more unrelated residents to live together. It is not the job of the city to police whether individuals are related or not. MSPyimby would actually prefer this ordinance go further, and back to the 1924 “definition” of a family, which was altered in the 1960s. However, the ordinance change would legalize many existing households and allow them to continue living together, regardless of familial relations, and without fear of neighbors reporting them to the city.

The second item is the proposed Uptown Pedestrian Overlay District, which would create more livable and walkable spaces in Wards 7, 8, and 10. MSPyimby supports this motion as well. The proposed changes reduce automobile-oriented uses of land (such as drive-thrus) in areas where pedestrian traffic is critical to the existing commercial integrity of businesses. It would also regulate the impact of parking lots, which serve to create a miserable pedestrian experience.

The proposal is a response to suburban-style, single-story projects that have been built recently, such as a drive-thru bank and a Walgreens. In an effort to encourage a more urban streetscape, the proposal would allow new buildings to be four stories regardless of the underlying zoning.

Third, and probably the most important, is the proposed downzoning of the Lowry Hill East neighborhood, known as The Wedge. MSPyimby opposes the zoning changes to this neighborhood, which seek to remove high-density zoning from one of the most desirable neighborhoods in the city. This proposal would make it more expensive and difficult to live in the most walkable and transit-friendly neighborhood in Minneapolis.

This proposal seeks to remove high density zoning from the northern portion of the Lowry Hill East neighborhood. This part of the neighborhood is exceptionally well-served by transit and has access to many amenities, such as commercial districts, the lakes, multiple grocery stores, etc.

Parts of Lowry Hill East have better transit access than 99 percent of the region.

Parts of Lowry Hill East have better transit access than 99 percent of the region.

What other neighborhood has so many grocery stores within walking distance? (Not pictured is a potential new grocery store at 26th and Lyndale.)

What other neighborhood has so many grocery stores within walking distance? (Not pictured is a potential new grocery store at 26th and Lyndale.)

The proposed downzoning makes it difficult for more residents to enjoy these amenities and restricts benefits to existing property owners. Given the existing high-quality transit options, we should be doing the opposite: allowing more housing to be built in this neighborhood.

If local neighbors are opposed to the high-density zoning, which seems to be the driving force behind this motion, one compromise would to upzone the southern half of the neighborhood, between 24th and 28th Streets, which are also very well served by transit, yet zoned for low density. This interior section of the neighborhood is in need of more development, and has similar access to transit and is very walkable.

Increasing existing zoning from low- to medium-density would allow the construction of  smaller scale, more affordable “missing middle” housing to replace low-density housing that’s becoming increasingly unaffordable and impractical for today’s smaller family sizes. Changing the zoning of the interior of Lowry Hill East from R2B to R4 or R5 would allow for the construction of fourplexes, which are currently “too dense” to be built in this area.

Why don’t we have this zoning now? Lowry Hill East has successfully downzoned previously, stopping most new development since the mid-70s. As WedgeLIVE also observes, today’s medium-sized development is tomorrow’s “naturally occurring affordable housing”:

We stopped building apartments in Lowry Hill East in the mid-70s and now wonder where the naturally occurring affordable housing is?

We stopped building apartments in Lowry Hill East in the mid-70s and now wonder where the naturally occurring affordable housing is?

This resolution to downzone the Wedge is misguided and serves to exclude residents from access to housing, transit, and walkable neighborhoods. The Wedge needs more housing, not less. If this resolution is passed, it will be yet another win for the NIMBYs of Lowry Hill East.

If you’d like to make your voice heard on any of these important urban policy issues, please attend the Minneapolis City Planning Commission meeting on Tuesday, November 1 at 4:30pm and testify.

This was crossposted at MSPyimby.


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25 Responses to Big Week at Minneapolis City Planning Commission

  1. David Markle
    David Markle October 31, 2016 at 11:32 am #

    The proposed change should benefit students, among others. I believe a case could be made that the present restriction violates citizens’ freedom of association.

  2. David Greene October 31, 2016 at 12:34 pm #

    I can’t agree with any upzoning in the Wedge, not until we get our zoning code in shape and truly allow missing middle development. I’m ambivalent on the downzoning proposal. Four+-lot, six+ story development just isn’t right for the interior of this neighborhood and many others. I know many here disagree with that but that’s where I land right now. I’m fine with 2-lot 4+-story development on the interior. I’m fine with further (much) higher density south of 28th and along Lyndale and Hennepin.

    When the (duplex) structure literally half a block from us has 20 lower-income people in it (and I support that!), it’s hard to accept the statement that there just isn’t enough low-cost density in the interior. Let 20+ people live in duplexes (assuming it’s safe). Fine, no problem. But tearing down some of these old structures for new construction is going to raise prices, not lower them. “Eventual” affordable housing doesn’t help the people that would be displaced immediately. We saw this effect with the Colfax project. I supported that under the assumption that it would be affordable. It is not and I now regret supporting that project given the number of poor people that were displaced to parts unknown.

    Frankly, lack of opportunity isn’t limiting development in the area, crazy zoning codes are. There’s multitude of empty lots in the area that for whatever reason aren’t being developed. These are not in the interior of the Wedge. They’re along or very near to commercial corridors.

    Right now it feels like we’re swinging the halberd around hoping to hit something without really understanding what the problem is.

    • Adam Miller
      Adam Miller October 31, 2016 at 1:19 pm #

      20 people living in a duplex does not sound like evidence that there’s sufficient low cost density right now.

      • David Greene October 31, 2016 at 1:57 pm #

        The point is that we currently have structures that can hold more people. Fix the zoning/whatever to let it happen.

        Attack the right problem with simpler solutions that can be implemented now.

        • Adam Miller
          Adam Miller October 31, 2016 at 2:16 pm #

          I don’t think they are alternatives, and failing to add supply to meet existing demand is going to result in worse problems down the road.

          • David Greene October 31, 2016 at 9:20 pm #

            There is plenty, plenty, plenty of space to add supply without adding large apartment complexes to the interiors of residential neighborhoods, and in the majority of cases, without tearing anything down at all. Just look at google maps.

    • Alex Cecchini
      Alex Cecchini October 31, 2016 at 2:23 pm #

      I outlined how “the market” can actually get reasonable rents for (yes, smaller-sized) 1BR apartment units on a single lot re-development tomorrow here. $900/mo for a 1BR is affordable (using standard 30% of gross income) to an individual making $36,000/yr (or $17/hr at 40 hrs/week). A couple occupying that 1BR unit could get by on $8/hr, especially if they were willing to go a bit higher on housing costs if they ditched a car (or two) – something the Wedge (and other neighborhoods in Minneapolis) are uniquely capable of allowing. As I outlined in my recent post on density inside neighborhoods, there are actually new developments meeting that rent-per-bedroom threshold. This isn’t theory. It really works.

      I don’t know how you can claim that tearing down these old structures will raise prices. Citing Motiv is a total distraction – the owner was selling no matter what. Any other offer on the table was going to turn that place back into a giant single family home valued at $1 million post-renovation, and displacing the residents. Don’t say “we don’t know what would have happened” because it is exactly what’s happened to all the renovated homes in the area. There was nowhere for those people to go to because we outlawed: triplexes, four-plexes, and single room occupancy across almost the entire Wedge long ago. A triplex requires at least R3 (unless you have a duplex with a third unit via ADU, only very recently allowed). A fourplex requires R4. Motiv required R5 (was zoned R6 – and hey nobody noticed they didn’t build a 6-story monstrosity). The 4-story, 10-unit building at 2008 Bryant required R5. 3535 Grand Ave (3 stories, 3-lots) required R5.

      ***60% of the Wedge*** is currently zoned R2B. R2B zoning in such a desirable location encourages conversion back to single family more than it does the other way around given the cost structures involved and the number of wealthy people who are more than fine with eating the opportunity cost of said zoning to have a killer great room in a house a mile from downtown. But to claim we need to completely overhaul our zoning code to allow missing middle is flat out false. We’ve got codes that allow for it. Re-zone everywhere to R4 or R5 if we don’t want >4 stories, and let people buy that $250,000 home that “needs a little help” and make it a cash-flowable rental by converting it to 3 or 4 units (3-4 units that would rent for less than the equivalent of the mortgage/taxes/insurance on a $250k house, by the way). Side note: people living at 2320 Colfax can’t afford your single family home (or mine). Let’s not act like even a $150k house would meet that need. And there aren’t any of those in the hot neighborhoods anyway.

      I realize there’s a lot of overlap between what we’re saying – you’re personally fine with 1-4 lot, 1-4 story multi-family housing on the interior of the neighborhood. And you’d likely be fine with zoning that allows/encourages more re-use options at higher density (triplexes, etc). But be honest: the rest of the neighborhood is not okay with that. They appealed that 2008 Bryant building. They complained loud enough about the Dupont turkey house because it had an ugly pitched roof that the city changed the setback rules to discourage it (but also make it more difficult to build by-right within the onerous setbacks – exactly what happened at 3621 Bryant with the same developer who requested a whopping 1′ side yard variance and it was appealed). Those are the voices that successfully drove the 70s downzone – which didn’t land 60% of the Wedge at R4, but R2B – and are likely going to be successful now. These “missing middle” structures really do require R5 to get the height, bulk, setbacks, etc all within the limits on smaller parcels (1-4 lots). And, people still hate them.

      Nobody is claiming market-rate development is going to magically replace 100-year old run down homes chopped into single room occupancy units at the same rent they had. But protecting or helping those people who are displaced by redevelopment (or people converting duplexes back to SFHs) is mostly separate from the zoning code. That requires ordinances that should give them notice, ample time to find new housing, support from the landlord making $$$ on the sale of the property, and city/county money to buy/build affordable housing in neighborhoods (which might mean ghastly 6 story stuff next to lily white single fam homes!) where displacement may be happening and keep a large enough percentage of it available for people who need a year to find something that works for them. And other solutions (!), but none of those are nuts-and-bolts-zoning-code related.

      tl;dr: if you think high-density should be on the edges and missing middle in the interior, this proposal does nothing to enhance the former and nothing to add the latter in exchange for bringing down some of the current R6 capacity. You should be against it.

      • David Greene October 31, 2016 at 2:33 pm #

        I’m confused. You say there’s no problem building the missing middle under the current zoning rules but wrote a whole article about why the current zoning code doesn’t allow building what we have right now. That does not compute for me.

        Frankly, I don’t care what some of my neighbors think. I am accountable for my decisions, not theirs.

        I am not fine with 4-lot development. 2-lot is a good balance, I think. I am fine with packing people into existing structures if they wish to do so and it is safe. We can squeeze a hell of a lot of density out of those two strategies while maintaining a more pedestrian-oriented, neighborhood atmosphere.

        But until the zoning code catches up to allow those two strategies but prevent walls of 4-lot development, keep it on the edges.

        • Adam Miller
          Adam Miller October 31, 2016 at 2:50 pm #

          What’s pedestrian oriented about lower density?

          • David Greene October 31, 2016 at 3:29 pm #

            You’re conflating density with built form. Density is very much pedestrian-oriented. A wall of apartments six stories high and four lots wide is (generally) not as pedestrian/neighborhood friendly.

            Now I’m assuming any such apartments would not have street-level retail but I think that’s a pretty good assumption. Apartment buildings are walled gardens. There’s little neighborly interaction outside people who live in the building. We can’t invite folks to neighborhood events. At least with smaller buildings we have a chance at knocking on doors or otherwise interacting with people. Duplexes and triplexes are great for that kind of thing.

            • Anton Schieffer
              Anton Schieffer October 31, 2016 at 4:08 pm #

              You can’t invite people who live in apartments to neighborhood events because you’d have to ring a buzzer instead of knock on a door? Give me a break.

              • David Greene October 31, 2016 at 9:13 pm #

                Have you ever tried? I have, many, many, many times. Large apartment buildings are fortresses.

        • Alex Cecchini
          Alex Cecchini October 31, 2016 at 2:57 pm #

          We have R5 as a tool. We don’t need to re-work anything in the code. We just need to re-zone the R2B to R5. That’s how we’d get missing middle.

          6 story buildings are no less pedestrian-oriented than single family homes. I’m interested in hearing how unfriendly Paris is to a pedestrian from a built-form perspective. How they must not have neighborhoods. You are using your preferred vision of what a “neighborhood” looks like and the type of “atmosphere” it creates. Just like everyone that won the downzone to R2B decades ago. That’s why I’m comparing you to them.

          The whole point of the opposition to this Wedge re-zoning is that it does nothing to allow the stuff that you claim to be okay with, even though it could. The CPC and City Council are already weighing well over 100 parcels worth of re-zoning. Why not double or triple that as a balance of losing some capacity in some places but gaining it in others. Shouldn’t the argument be “until the neighborhood’s zoning catches up to allow a bunch of re-use and intensification in the interior, we can’t justify downzoning over half of the R6 stuff”? This proposal clearly aligns with city policies that state dense development should be on corridors. It doesn’t align with broader policies that talk about housing options, growth, climate change, equity, etc.

          • David Greene October 31, 2016 at 3:32 pm #

            I’m less concerned about height (to a limit) than I am width. A large wall of apartments closed off from the neighborhood creates an uninviting atmosphere.

            I’m not an expert in Minneapolis zoning codes but if R5 allows four-lot wide apartments buildings I’m not interested. I want something more targeted.

            The problem with the current zoning is it allows a bunch of stuff that I don’t think works well in the interior. I said I’m ambivalent. If it stays as-is, probably nothing much will happen for a while. If it gets downzoned, maybe that’s an opportunity for people to come together, actually *listen* to each other and draw up a compromise.

            A large part of the issue here and in other neighborhoods is the lack of listening and empathic capability on all sides.

  3. David Markle
    David Markle October 31, 2016 at 5:13 pm #

    I seem to remember commercial and rental property owners talking a long time ago about court cases involving downzoning, that courts found improper when it lowered property values. As in the favorite phrase of developers, “Higher and Better Use.” And yet I suspect the parties pushing for it in the instances discussed here may feel that their homeowner property values (and amenities) are threatened. Public life is full of contradictions.

    (Of course my previous comment above referred to the proposal concerning the number of unrelated persons able to live in a unit.)

  4. Sam Newberg
    Sam Newberg November 4, 2016 at 11:17 am #

    Can anyone provide a summary and discussion of how the Planning Commission voted on Nov 1?

    • Peter Bajurny November 4, 2016 at 2:15 pm #

      All 3 things were approved, I’m sure someone will write a bigger post about some of the discussion that went on.