Zoning Reform and the Pace of Neighborhood Change

A few days ago, Adam Miller had a post here on streets.mn debunking the idea that fourplexes mean four stories. The truth is that Minneapolis’ new draft comprehensive plan that proposes allowing up to four-family homes in currently single-family neighborhoods, would limit those homes to 2.5 stories (the “Interior 1” designation). Honestly, I am someone who thinks four stories is just fine in lots of places and the comprehensive plan isn’t radical enough — but if you’re bothered, the facts should be reassuring.

“Interior 1” in the draft Minneapolis Comprehensive Plan

There’s another point to be made about the pace of change that modest zoning reform would bring to any given neighborhood. As with most things, I like to use the Wedge neighborhood as an example. For the last 40 years, the Wedge has had the most permissive residential zoning in Minneapolis (R6) across many interior blocks (along with a generous portion of two-family zoning). It’s the kind of zoning that, if you can assemble multiple lots, might conceivably lead to a five- or six-story building with a 100 or more apartments.

For people who hate the idea of more neighbors, R6 zoning is as scary as it gets. R6 zoning has been the rallying cry for the Wedge’s anti-housing activists to justify repeated downzoning (two successful, one failed) and historic districts.

What has this extremely permissive zoning created in reality? From about 1975 until 2018, it produced a 42-unit building (which, from the street, appears to be three stories — the fourth story is stepped back), a 10-unit building, and a fourplex. This is all that’s been built in the Wedge interior. When I say “interior,” that’s everything excluding Lyndale Avenue and the formerly industrial/Greenway area south of 28th Street.

Again, this is an area famous for the most permissive residential zoning in Minneapolis. That’s just three buildings and 56 units in 43 years.


On the other end of the spectrum from R6, the “fourplex zoning” (Interior 1) recommended in the Minneapolis draft comprehensive plan is about as restrictive as it gets, short of leaving in place single-family zoning. Fourplex zoning would limit building heights to 2.5 stories, limit units, and limit lots to a “traditional size city lot.” Meaningful change happens inside the building, with up to four families now able to live there.

Small changes over an entire city can add up.  But allowing two-, three-, and four-family homes in formerly single family neighborhoods will not radically transform individual neighborhoods overnight, or even over the course of 40 years. Just because something is allowed, doesn’t mean it becomes mandatory. But it does mean small changes would be possible, creating more housing choice across every neighborhood in the city.

You can comment on the Minneapolis 2040 draft Comprehensive Plan through July 22.

11 thoughts on “Zoning Reform and the Pace of Neighborhood Change

  1. Andy E

    One change I would love to see in carefully chosen neighborhoods would be what I like to call “Brooklyn Zoning.” Basically, the zoning would allow for the classic 3 story Brooklyn brownstone/row house. Each individual building (3 units) would sell as one, with incentives in place for owner-occupied units (as an owner-occupant typically cares more about the building and the tenants). For owner-unoccupied buildings a requirement could be in place requiring 1 unit to rent at an affordable rate for low-income people.

    The corners could have the ground unit zoned for retail/commercial purpose, allowing for some businesses to serve the community. Some examples would be family-owned restaurants, small markets, barbershops, etc… Parking would be basically street only – or if alleys are build maybe 1 car per building – meaning good transit is a must.

    You could basically fit 9 units (3 buildings) in any single family home lot. Maybe 4.

    1. Sean O'Brien

      This is an awesome idea. I love the brownstone neighborhoods in and around Wicker Park in Chicago; they make for great, dense communities with tons of walkable destinations and that can be easily served by transit.

  2. karen

    I keep looking at older mixed neighborhoods like the one I lived in off Snelling and wonder what is the secret sauce that made the mix perfectly fine with still highly valued single family homes with lots of young families in them.

    I can’t really say why the old brick apartments seem to work better with neighborhood, even when they are 4 or 5 stories, but they do seem to be so much more of a benefit that harm to neighborhood than say and bunch of 4-5- 6 story modern apartment buildings.

    Some things that seem to help – the lot width and overall size of single building in older style development seem smaller – though as tall, the old apartment buildings are generally less wide and have more gaps between. Often these old apartment buildings are right next to a single family home with little or no issues or concern to neighboring home – I know I’ve talked to those homeowners – but almost no existing homeowner would feel that way about new 4-5 story apartment going up next to them.

    Also, several of the bigger, old apartment buildings in my old neighborhood had U shape with center courtyard that faced the street – further breaking up a the building from the street front.

    Also, these big, old apartment buildings don’t have any parking in front of them or between them, but they have alleys, and some garage parking and surface parking spots tucked behind them. A big new apartment will often have some surface parking facing someone who does not want to see it and even the entrance to underground parking can be bothersome to neighbor, while alleys put cars, parking, coming and going in places it less likely to bother nearby homeowners. Alleys seem a big reason the front of Grand avenue look traditional even though there is lots of surface parking hidden behind in the alleys,.

    And there is one other thing, maybe some architect can tell why, but even the most simple boxey old brick fourplex with zero ornamental details, looks pretty charming in these old neighborhoods but even more ornamental modern buildings that try to be more traditional looking seem to lack same appeal. I can only think of a few modern buildings I really like – perhaps the Lyric on University Avenue more than just plain old brick buildings..

    1. Rosa

      part of it’s just what we’re used to, I think – there are plenty of newer single family homes around that I don’t find charming at all either. Some of the styles grow on my over time.

      But also there’s a tremendous value to slow, organic change – you get a mix of styles and sizes instead of giant jumps. We’re not going to be able to go back in time and undo the historic SFH zoning that deprived us of this the last few decades, but we can have it starting now into the future by having the less restrictive zoning.

  3. karen

    Is there a type of zoning that allows up to a certain percentage of denser structures and then cuts off, or would that be illegal spot zoning.

    Another reason the old neighborhoods seem to handle mixed of denser housing without harming single-family home value was that there was a good mix – either within the blocks – some apartment buildings that tended to be at corners with lots of houses or fourplexes in between or like say Grand – apartments on one main street and then very nice houses just one block away.

  4. karen

    and not that this is the greatest example because there is tremendous amount of wasted space in front of this tall building, but here a tall apartment building works just fine along a traditional low rise business district and single-family homes.



  5. Rosa

    This is such a great reality check!

    For some reason I keep seeing restrictive housing proponents claiming they are on the side of freedom, their freedom to have a SFH home, but in reality – if people only want single family, then that’s what will get built. But if people want other things and we have zoning that only allows single family, then we don’t get what we want.

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