Arguments Against Minneapolis’s Draft Comprehensive Plan, Addressed (Part I)

It seems like it’s time to take stock of the arguments being levied against ideas in the Minneapolis Draft 2040 Comprehensive Plan. Here are some of the common themes that you might hear argued—or might be compelled to argue yourself!—and some point-by-point responses.

Density Belongs Downtown (or Near the University, or…)

A Minneapolis single-family home

This South Minneapolis home, next to an apartment building, and across the street from two other multifamily dwellings, appreciated 85% in 9 years and always had plenty of parking.

The Draft Plan already reflects that the city will “allow the highest-density housing in and near Downtown.” But why should that be the only place density or population growth is allowed?

This is the fairly straightforward NIMBY position, though it could be disguised as a proposal from someone within, or “representing” the proposed Density-Acceptable-Zone. Density is fine, as long as it is somewhere else. In this case, where dense development has already been allowed. 

The fundamental defects of this argument are those of fairness and the economics of artificial (politically-created) scarcity.

The problems with restricting where population growth can occur are fairly clear: it constrains the land available, increasing costs, limiting choice, and limiting the population growth that can be economically and sustainably achieved. People who might choose to live in Minneapolis in excess of new housing units have no other choice but to bid up property values or contribute to sprawl.

Artificially narrowing the geographical boundaries of where Minneapolis can experience growth to please well-off property owners who would prefer to wall themselves off from this change, is a selfish impulse made policy. It perpetuates class and race inequities, it enriches existing property owners at the expense of aspiring property owners and would-be neighbors, and puts “affordability” in a vice.

But also consider: how do homeowners in the “density approved” area feel about being “volunteered” by wealthy landowners elsewhere in the city as the place to concentrate new housing? Not entirely keen! So it’s really just dumping the “problem” on a group you hope is not politically effective enough to resist. That’s unjust, and another demonstration of how this self-serving approach benefits the politically and financially secure at the expense of people without those advantages. It would also inevitably contribute to increased socio-economic concentration in the long-run, which is harmful to the city and something the Comprehensive Plan is appropriately trying to ameliorate.

Housing can’t be affordable if it isn’t plentiful. Restricting housing growth geographically to two (or any small percentage of) neighborhoods in the entire city limits inventory. You can’t do it and claim to prioritize affordability or equity. (Affordability mandates will be discussed in more detail in Part II.) The fair thing to do is to share the burdens and the benefits of increasing density throughout the city.

Pursue Density Near High Frequency Transit

This sounds like a self-evident policy goal because it is. But it isn’t a sound reason to restrict development and growth elsewhere.

My response to this is: “yes, and…” The proposed Comprehensive Plan clearly already prefers to put new housing near transit, and the market is going to do that naturally on its own. It’s going to happen. But the transit and walkability status quo shouldn’t entirely dictate how the city grows into the future, or be a basis for restricting it to those places where it already exists. (See the responses above to “Density Belongs Downtown.“)

Density increases need to be accompanied by improved transit and walkable services, no question. Density, transit, and walkability are a three-legged stool and, throughout Minneapolis, each leg needs to grow.

But their absence or inadequacy today doesn’t justify preventing growth. People should be given a choice about where in the city they can live. The necessary service improvements to accommodate their choices should also be pursued! Housing more people in those places is the surest way to make it happen.

Conversely, making transit improvements and more walkable services a prerequisite to the demand (increased density) that would justify them is an easy way to make sure none of it materializes. A convenient, self-fulfilling anti-density, anti-transit, and anti-walkability prophesy, and also contrary to the Comprehensive Plan’s goal to make every neighborhood in Minneapolis a complete neighborhood.

Indiscriminate Bulldozing

This is a fear-based argument. Fear of the unknown, the random, and of vast powers outside of your control destroying your neighborhood and what you hold dear.

There are so many flaws with this sensationalized argument it is hard to know where to start. But I guess it needs to be said that the 2040 Comprehensive Plan will not turn Minneapolis into the occupied West Bank—which as far as I can tell is the closest analogy to the fear and anxiety this argument is intended to invoke.

Bulldozing will not be indiscriminate—no more so than it is today. Property owners would decide what happens to their property, just as they already do. Only, instead of being required to build single family homes in most of the city, they may build a 2-, 3-, or 4-plex. That’s all.

The Comprehensive Plan isn’t about bulldozing at all. It’s about what to build after the bulldozer leaves. And right now, in most places, that thing could already be a single family home as big as a fourplex, so it’s really only about expanding who can afford and is allowed to live in whatever is built after the bulldozer leaves.

There are more arguments out there. I’ve already spotted a few and expect to touch on them in a followup: Part II.

Christa M

About Christa M

Attorney. I do law stuff, ride bikes, and paint murals. Member of Hourcar & Nice Ride, and customer of Freewheel Bike and The Hub Bike Co-op.