It’s a Plan, Not a Code

[S]mall-scale residential structures.” These are the words the draft Minneapolis 2040 comprehensive plan uses to describe the massing of buildings to be allowed in the Interior 1 category, most of which is currently zoned R1 or “single family.” Carol Becker knows this, because I’ve told her (also here).

When asked last week at a Longfellow Community Council town hall about the draft plan, Heather Worthington, the city’s director of Long Range Planning for Community Planning and Economic Development and chief author of the plan, said this means “similar in size to what we have now” (my paraphrase). Carol Becker knows this, because she was at that town hall.

The Plan does not include greater detail, because it is a plan, not a zoning code and regulations with that level of specificity are not its subject. Carol Becker knows this, both because I’ve told her and because Ms. Worthington responded to a variety of questions at that town hall by saying that a particular concern was something that could be addressed during the the “regulatory” phase of drafting a new zoning code over the next two years.

Despite knowing these things, Carol Becker tells us that the zoning code that is yet to be written will allow new structures to “to take up the full lot, front to back, side to side.” Carol Becker is making assumptions and ignoring both the actual language of the plan and the explanations that have been given by its author to do so.

The point of looking at the units that already exist in the city is not that we’ll see the same architectural style. The point is that structures with two, three or four units do not have to have the height and massing of the ones from Seattle that Carol Becker finds so scary.

They could be similar in size to this little triplex on Bloomington Avenue:

Small triplex near 53rd and Bloomington

No, I don’t think there’s going to be a lot of demand to recreate this particular structure, but the point is that builders build what’s allowed. Those structures from Seattle are apparently allowed under their zoning code. If we don’t want them here, we should draft a code that reflects that desire. Which has nothing at all to do with how many units are allowed.

The other point of looking at what’s around town is to note that when we allowed small multi-unit buildings, we got mostly duplexes (especially on smaller lots), some triplexes and a small number of four unit buildings, but not very many. We got that even though building more units was allowed. Even in the 1920s and before when there likely wasn’t a zoning code to require it (I haven’t been able to pin down the exact date of the city’s first zoning code, much less what it had to say about multi-unit structures), we didn’t get all larger structures.

Even the triplex in Northeast Minneapolis that Carol Becker doesn’t like undermines her argument that once we allow four units developers will “bulldoze” entire neighborhoods to build them everywhere. That building is on a parcel that’s currently zoned R5. That means the developer who built it could have built a larger structure – up to 4 stories for a multifamily development – but did not. (Carol Becker knows this, because I’ve told her.) There must have been something other than zoning that made them not do so.

Is this really so bad?

R5 zoning also means that the massing that Carol Becker finds so offensive doesn’t reflect “small scale residential structures” of our neighborhood interiors. R5 allows structures that use up four times the amount of lot area as R1 and R1A (allowed FAR of 2.0 vs. .5).  Again, Carol knows this, because I’ve told her.

It would be great if we could be having conversations about what’s actually in the plan rather than about the assumptions of those who are most scared of change. Especially when those assumptions are completely unfounded.

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.

12 thoughts on “It’s a Plan, Not a Code

  1. Mike hess

    Adam I think part of the problem is that even for a plan the level of detail in that policy is too shallow. For the scope of impact on the city it’s not enough to rely on what Heather Worthington said the words mean if zoning activity will follow based on this document.

    Compare the actions in Policy 6 to Policy 1. If policy 1 had the same level of thought and guidance as policy 6 there would be a lot less hand wringing over potential impacts to residential neighborhoods. And it would not need to get into zoning level detail.

    The plan could have talked about how these residential structures would fit in without turning into code.

    This is not an endorsement of some of the far fetched doomsday scenarios that are floating around but it is a reasonable criticism of the plan writers, not giving enough thought to how scrutinized this section would be.

  2. Matt EckholmMatt Eckholm

    It’s incredibly frustrating how fear based the discussion around the plan has become. Frustrating, but not surprising.

    1. Christa MChris Moseng

      It would help if community leaders and public figures weren’t stoking the fear. It’s a bad look.

      Anyway, I appreciated the thoroughness of this post, but in particular I liked the penultimate sentence.

  3. Bruce BrunnerBruce Brunner

    People hear and decide to interpret things in the way that suits their purpose. It doesn’t matter that they heard it come straight from city officials that created the plan.
    Stoking the fire is a way to get others to rally to whatever your particular platform is. I hear that in the rhetoric coming out from people who don’t want any change near their house. It’s like a ” not in my backyard” approach- I wish I could think of an acronym for that.

    Recently there has been push back from people who don’t believe there is a housing shortage for residents in Minneapolis. I heard someone call them housing/rental shortage deniers and they are compared similarly to climate change deniers. The only thing is to figure out is why they want to deny we have a housing shortage when the facts show we do?

    1. Morgan Bird

      Depending who you’re referring to I believe “vacancy rate truthers” is the preferred nomenclature.

  4. Adam MillerAdam Miller Post author

    I keep looking at the picture of that triplex in NE and thinking it’s so much less intrusive than a lot of the McMansions we’re getting.

    1. SSP

      Mike, Yeah, Carol’s arguments have no merit because “[Adam] told her” so, and he knows better than her what the terms in the comprehensive plan will translate into in the code we don’t yet have. No time to go through a point by point rebuttal to his mansplaining post.

      1. Adam MillerAdam Miller Post author

        If Catol cared about height, scale and massing, she should be arguing that future zoning include appropriate FAR, height and setback requirements or for your excellent suggestion that allowed scale should only increase from existing structures for an increase in units.

        That she’s instead using factual assertions she knows are dubious to block the concept of small multi-unit buildings suggests her real concerns lie elsewhere. If she’s going to make those dubious assertions here, readers should know that she knows or should know they are dubious.

      2. Nathanael

        Mike pretty much proved that Carol is being dishonest, with citations. You have “no time to” make any arguments disagreeing with Mike, so you’re admitting that Carol was being dishonest.

        That’s how arguments work.

        1. Nathanael

          Sorry, *Adam* proved that Carol is being dishonest.

          My point remains: When someone catches a writer being dishonest… it’s worth publishing it. It is classy to point out when someone is making a dishonest argument.

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