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.