The 2040 Minneapolis Comprehensive Plan has proposed that we open all single-family homes and duplexes to being bulldozed and replaced with fourplexes. This has, rightly, alarmed many people. Some parts of the City would benefit from more density but indiscriminately bulldozing homes would destroy the fabric of many of our neighborhoods.
Housing advocates have said that these concerns are overblown. They counter by showing pictures of 100-year-old duplexes and triplexes built in the parts of town developed primarily from 1895 to 1905 as proof that higher density housing is not ugly and out of scale with existing housing. These pictures are substantially misleading however. First, they show housing on larger lots than are throughout much of the rest of the City. They also show construction styles from 100 years ago, which had peaked roofs and limited mass. Today, developers use every square foot they can lay their hands on to maximize their profits. Modern housing is built to take up the full lot, front to back, side to side. It has a flat roof, meaning the issue is not height but mass. Three units are built by having one unit partially underground, thereby meeting the 2 ½ stories requirement. The presumption is that the 35-foot height maximum would remain (this is yet to be seen as the zoning code will be rewritten in the next two years). Even if this height limit remains, the issue is not height but mass.
What does this look like? First, we can look to Seattle to see what is being built there. As you can see, it is easy to build at a 35 foot, 2 ½ story height and have it be completely out of scale with the surrounding neighborhood. This is from the Ballard neighborhood, where much of this kind of construction has happened.
Here is another view of this same two houses, so you can see the problem with mass:
Another one from Seattle. You can see the cheap construction methods:
These are not cute 100-year-old triplexes. These are dreadnaughts on the urban landscape.
Is there housing like this in Minneapolis already? Yes. If you go down the alley behind Elsie’s in Northeast Minneapolis, you can see exactly what the City has in store if this policy goes into effect. What blows you away when you see this three-plex is the scale. The mass of this building is completely out of context for the rest of the neighborhood. This is what it looks like from the front:
But this is what it looks like from the side. It was hard to get the whole thing in the picture given it takes up the whole lot. It completely obscures the neighbor’s back yards.
Minneapolis is a city that has never respected its history, nor the things that make it unique. We bulldozed the Metropolitan Building. We bulldozed the Warehouse District. We bulldozed much of the West Bank. We bulldozed much of North Minneapolis. We bulldozed in the name of progress. And we lost our history. If we really try hard enough, we can be a city populated with cheap, soul-less, modernistic, ugly housing. Or we can choose differently. We can put higher density housing where it belongs and also preserve the best of our city.