When I heard that Minneapolis’s comprehensive plan would remove restrictions on building two- to four-unit homes in areas previously zoned R1 or R1A (including my neighborhood, Longfellow) I was thrilled. I consider the restrictions on these types of “missing middle” housing a nearly insurmountable threat to achieving Minneapolis’s population growth and sustainability goals. In addition, I have spent years touting the health benefits of active transportation, which is most feasible when living, working, and shopping areas are clustered together. What better way to provide economic support for local work and retail than to allow more people to live near it? I also wished to co-own a duplex in the not-too-distant past, but finding a just-right duplex for sale in Minneapolis was nearly impossible. At any given time there are around 15 single-family houses for sale for every duplex.
So why did finding out my neighborhood was listed as Interior 2, instead of Interior 1, feel like having the rug pulled out from under me?
First, some terminology. Adam Miller’s recent piece “Not So Tall After All” describes the Interior 1 designation:
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.
My neighborhood, between 38th Street South and Lake Street, is designated Interior 2:
New buildings in the Interior 2 district should be small-scale residential structures on traditional size city lots with up to four dwelling units, as well as multifamily buildings on a limited number of combined lots. Building heights should be 1 to 2.5 stories.
The difference is that in Interior 2, multifamily buildings may be constructed on a “limited number of combined lots,” while that use is not permitted in Interior 1.
My feelings about this designation are surprising to me because I have argued against them innumerable other times. When I wanted a bike lane to be painted on 38th Street, I thought it was absurd that people would feel that parking on a side street violates their right to free parking wherever they want. When my NextDoor neighbors thought fourplexes would steal their sunshine I argued that existing single-family homes could do the same thing, that people who live in multifamily housing deserve to live on low-traffic streets as much as anybody, and that new multifamily housing could begin to address the city’s rock-bottom rental vacancy and rising prices.
Apartments are necessary for a dense city. We lived in a wonderful 10-unit apartment for 8 years until my son was 2 and some terrible neighbors helped us we realized we would be happier in a place where we didn’t feel the need to keep him quiet all the time.
But I can’t help feel like I wouldn’t want larger buildings on consolidated lots… in my backyard? That doesn’t sound like me, but reflecting on why I feel this way might help in the future when I am encouraging others to push beyond their comfort zone.
Fear is the mind-killer
I don’t want or need to justify my feelings, inasmuch as my head knows that excluding apartments from neighborhoods is wrong, but my heart wants to keep things closer to the way they are. But when I look at the picture of mixed larger apartment buildings and single-family houses I do not see my neighborhood. Perhaps that’s because the illustrations, while meant to be pleasing to the eye, overstate the expected pace of change (as John Edwards convincingly illustrates elsewhere). Indeed when I look at my own block, I can see few if any places where it would make sense to purchase two homes (at an up-front cost of at least $400,000) to build a larger apartment building.
When presented with potential change, I suspect that people assume the maximum possible change will occur when the truth is closer to the minimum. That worst-case imagining can be disequilibrating. While I have warm and friendly relationships with other families on my block, in my eight years of apartment living I did not make friendships with neighbors outside my building, and not for want of trying. It is easy to imagine that your neighborhood full of families with kids who show up to National Night Out will somehow be disrupted by socially isolating, inward-directing apartment buildings, or that absentee landlords will leave our sidewalks un-shoveled in winter. Empirical evidence on the topic is limited, but there is reason to believe that features of the built environment that encourage neighborly interaction improve social trust and psychological well-being. I would want any changes to promote those ties.
From being on this side of things, I have learned that “you bought your house and shouldn’t consider anything beyond your property line in your valuations” (not a comment I have seen in any pieces published by streets.mn, but a sentiment that does pop up in comments elsewhere) is a profoundly unconvincing argument. Everyone who is engaged at streets.mn cares about the form of their neighborhood and wishes to improve it. In addition, homes are most people’s single largest asset and it makes sense to try to preserve the value of that asset.
Instead of arguing that people shouldn’t try to stop their neighborhoods from changing, I see writers here emphasizing what upzoning would add to a neighborhood. But often the arguments are about what future residents would gain from change, and not about the benefits to current residents – the ones who will weigh in on the plan. The landscape we know is comforting, and fear of change is a natural and authentic reaction. Taking the real concerns of opponents into consideration sharpens our rhetoric and makes us more effective advocates.
Where does this leave me with respect to Interior 2? I don’t have a pleasant wrap-up in which I changed my mind about everything. I would like to imagine that the city would ensure apartments built on consolidated lots would fit seamlessly into the neighborhood, but that is not in the proposal. I know that every concern I have about apartments on consolidated lots is a concern that somebody else has about fourplexes. Indeed, the best arguments for 2-4 unit housing are often made at the expense of larger multifamily projects. I am concerned that larger buildings are unlikely to be owner-occupied, sending neighborhood resources into investment funds. But at the same time I want to make sure that everybody who wants to live in my neighborhood has a place in it. I certainly wouldn’t want my concerns about consolidating lots to prevent the sensible rezoning I wholeheartedly support.