Not So Tall After All

You may have heard that Minneapolis has been working on a big project to overhaul its comprehensive plan. At least you’ve heard from some that those evil social engineers are trying to cram a one-size-fits-all plan to build tenements to replace every single family home and banish the sun from backyard gardens across the city (because someone wanted to give that narrative a chance to blossom).

The need for wild speculation and scare tactics is over, because the draft plan is out! It’s huge and I wanted to get the conversation started with some first thoughts.

The first thought is that no, “fourplexes everywhere” does not mean allowing four stories on every lot. In my neighborhood in what is sometimes jokingly referred to as North Richfield, the plan calls for our immediate neighborhood to follow the “Interior 1” built form. The guidance for the built for of that type is:

New buildings in the Interior 1 district should be primarily small-scale residential structures on traditional size city lots with up to four dwelling units, including single-family, duplex, 3-unit, 4-unit, and accessory dwelling unit building types. Building heights should be 1 to 2.5 stories.

Sure, you can build a fourplex, but you’re not going to get to build it to the sky right next to our 1.5 story that the realtor called a “Cape Cod”. The vision apparently looks something like this:

Hopefully we’ve got more mature street trees than that around but regardless, those structures are bigger than most (but not all) of what’s currently in our immediate neighborhood. I personally doubt we’ll ever get to the place where all of the current structures are replaced with new ones under the new rules, so we should probably be picturing a mix of old and new instead. Nonetheless, we’re already getting new structures of this size:

Two new single family homes on 16th Ave.

With this reform, those structures could be two, three or four units, instead of the current large single family homes. That means more people can live in the neighborhood, meaning more customers for local businesses like Hot Plate around the corner. It means more potential riders to join me to commute downtown on the 14 one block over on Bloomington. It means more people who can enjoy the parks and Lake Nokomis, just blocks away. It means more people who can walk to stuff. It means a broader tax base to help maintain all of those resources. It means a condo unit or rental in the new building will cost significantly less than the price of one of those new homes (county property records say one of them sold for about $640,000 late last year).

As I mentioned those particular lots are one block from a bus route, so they aren’t “Interior 1.” Under the draft plan, they are “Interior 3” which means they could add an extra floor as a transition to the lower intensity of the neighborhood interior from the “Corridor 4” form allowed on Bloomington, which would be allowed to look more like this:

That level of activity and retail this far south in the city seems a ways off, but we can dream, can’t we?

Adam Miller

About Adam Miller

Adam Miller works downtown and lives in South Minneapolis. He's an avid user of the city's bike paths, sidewalks and skyways. He's not entirely certain he knows what the word "urbanist" means.

15 thoughts on “Not So Tall After All

    1. Adam MillerAdam Miller Post author

      That triplex is pretty long, so I don’t that these are bigger, but they are certainly similar, and if you look at them from 52nd, they really stick up over the rest of the houses in the neighborhood (they are slightly uphill from there, but the houses are also a lot taller).

      What Carol didn’t mention, though, is that triplex is zoned R5 currently, which means the FAR maximum is 2.0, compared to 0.5 in the single family zones she’s worried about. That parcel is also slated to be R3 in the new plan. So yeah, denser zoning allows denser structures.

  1. Aaron Berger

    On the “Fourplexes Everywhere?” thread I mentioned that it bothers me that my neighborhood (along with other interior neighborhoods between South 38th Street and Lowry Avenue) is zoned Interior 2 when every interior neighborhood south of 38th Street is zoned Interior 1. The distinction is that Interior 2 permits the consolidation of parcels to build 2.5-story apartments larger than 4 units. I cannot come up with a good reason for this geographic distinction other than that homeowners south of 38th would be furious.

    As a supporter of the fourplex zoning I really do see this as a difference of kind rather than a difference of degree. As the “Fourplexes Everywhere?” article put it, fourplexes, triplexes, and duplexes are the most economical and accessible way to create new housing, and are unobtrusive in most neighborhoods. Unlike multiparcel apartments, two- to four-unit homes are feasible for owner-occupants.

    I actually think I am more bothered by the Interior 2 designation because it is not applied to the most of the city’s tonier wards. The fact that multiple parcels can be consolidated only if your property is within a certain boundary (which is not doubt also a class boundary) seems arbitrary and by design will prevent the presence of a large apartment building from being normalized in the minds of homebuyers of certain means. As a good urbanist I should probably not be bothered by this, but I am.

    1. Adam MillerAdam Miller Post author

      If I wanted to make a case for it, I’d say that the center of the city is already a lot denser and already has more multi-parcel developments such that adding multi-parcel buildings is the next step up in density from the existing built form.

      But instead I’d say let’s do away with R1 altogether, except that like you, I doubt that’s politically feasible.

    2. Sean Hayford OlearySean Hayford Oleary

      I am more familiar with South Minneapolis — but I accept that 38th St is a reasonable line. It’s already the approximate line (varies as little bit) between R2B and R1/R1A. And as Adam said, there is simply more mix of smaller apartment buildings in that area anyway. The next sort of “natural line” might be Minnehaha Creek, but you clearly get well into more uniform SFH neighborhoods well north of that location.

      1. Aaron Berger

        That’s true west of Hiawatha, but not so east of Hiawatha (where I live). In virtually any case I can think of there is a poor case to be made for land use regulation, but probably a stronger case for regulating built form.

        Cells are very small so that they have a low volume to surface area ratio. That permits more communication across cell boundaries. I think the social life of a neighborhood is similar – I have no evidence for it but I suspect that people communicate more with their neighbors when they can walk outside directly from their home.

        I suppose my thinking is also somewhat an extension of the case for fine-grained development made here: It’s not as though Interior 2 will permit block-sized development, but I do think it promotes the movement of neighborhood capital from local ownership to investor ownership. Not that that’s exactly unheard of with single parcel development.

        1. Daniel Hartigkingledion

          Your theory about more community being possible if you can walk directly outside is more or less supported by the giant ‘projects’ of the urban renewal movement, when the idea was the house all the poor in tall buildings like Pruitt-Igoe and Cabrini-Green.

          Very few of those buildings, if any, have survived to today, and I don’t know of any that were loved by their residents; often in strict opposition to the neighborhoods that they replaced, like Boston’s West End or Niagara Falls downtown.

          1. Adam MillerAdam Miller Post author

            I don’t know that I’d say that the failing of large public housing projects had much to do with whether you can go directly outside, especially given that alternative that concentrating and racially segregating poverty is not a good idea.

            But Minneapolis has a number of high rise public housing buildings (not exactly sure when they were built, but some likely in that era).

            1. brad

              Speaking of racial segregation, I notice that the HDL area was also a hotbed of racial covenants (see Mapping Prejudice They haven’t been enforceable for decades, but I do wonder about the way their influence may linger.

          2. Aaron Berger

            Giant housing projects are almost certainly sui generis and I certainly don’t think anything like that would be plopped down in any neighborhood in Minneapolis. But I do think there are subtle ways in which building design influences social cohesion. I found an interesting article here ( that evaluates the effects of “eyes on the street” on perceived social support. The authors did a survey of elderly people living in Little Havana in Miami. The goal was to link architectural features associated with “eyes on the street” (e.g. porches, windows) to perceived social support and psychological distress. They found that features that promote visibility from a building’s exterior, like porches, are associated with higher perceived social support, while features that promote visibility from the interior, like windows, are associated with lower perceived social support. It’s an interesting looking out/looking in dichotomy. I don’t wish to overgeneralize from one study of elderly Cuban-Americans in Miami, but it’s worth considering how new buildings (and, if the comprehensive plan is successful, there will be plenty of new buildings) can be designed to promote social cohesion.

    3. Rosa

      are the lots smaller north of 38th?

      We have SO MANY empty lots that are just extra large yards (or little gardens or art spots or whatever) because they aren’t really big enough to build on. I’m a little surprised people don’t buy them and drop trailer houses on them because that’s about the size they are. And many are only recently empty – there’s one on Bloomington between 31st & 32nd that had a house on it until 2007, and another on I think 16th Ave where the house was taken out by a falling tree in the straight wind event we had maybe 4 summers ago.

      I don’t see farther south neighborhoods as much so I guess I don’t know if that’s common everywhere. But it seems like there has to be a price point that Powderhorn and maybe Longfellow don’t hit that would make redeveloping those lots happen without consolidation.

  2. Daniel Hartigkingledion

    This seems like a good place to leave some density comparisons between Minneapolis and other cities, to get a feel for how total population correlates to density. The strongly street gridded part of the Twin Cities consists of Minnepolis, St. Paul, Richfield, Columbia Heights, and bits of St. Louis Park and others, roughly 300 km^2. This area has a population of 735,000 people. I calculated all these numbers by summing zip codes, which don’t line up exactly with city boundaries.

    If all that area were developed to the density of Uptown (here defined as zip code 55408), there would be 1.35 million people in the 300 km^2 area. Uptown’s structures are approximately 55% single family homes, 35% 2-4 unit buildings or rowhouses, and 10% apartment buildings of 5+ units.

    Alternately density like that of, zip code 55407, which is roughly Phillips and Powderhorn, would yield a total population of 1.15 million, with structure composition 78% single family, 20% 2-4 unit, 2% large apartments.

    Compare that to other pre-auto street grid-ed cities in the Northern US for their 300 km^2 area population.

    Baltimore: 800,000
    Washington: 1,180,000
    Boston: 1,360,000
    Philadelphia: 1,580,000
    Chicago: 1,950,000

    Alternately, other cold-weather world cities:

    Cologne: 990,000
    Copenhagen: 1,120,000
    Stockholm: 1,180,000
    Hamburg: 1,260,000
    Munich: 1,560,000
    Montreal: 1,740,000

    Summary: It doesn’t take much on a regular street grid to boost local population into the Washington DC/Copenhagen/Stockholm levels of density. Just add 20% 2-4 unit houses and a scattering of larger apartments (2% of all structures) on main roads and you are there. Given the rate of population increase in the metro area since 2000, if 50% of new population chose to live in the city parts, you could effect this population increase in about 25 years; just about 2040, just like the plan says.

    1. Jonathan

      It helps to not have as many SFHs and have more compact housing like row houses. Our compact core is a lot smaller than East Coast cities, but I think we are trending that way.

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