Low rise housing near downtown Wellington in the neighborhood of Mt Victoria

Positively 4th St: One Block Shows Us the Way in Minneapolis 2040

The draft Minneapolis comprehensive plan, Minneapolis 2040, is both a bold proposal at odds with the direction of the past century of American municipal policies, and yet unfortunately deferential in places to existing power structures. In other words, it’s a totally normal political document.

The bold part, in housing policy, is to do away with the peculiarly North American practice of defining what can be built with reference to the number of households on the property: single family and multi-family zoning [1]. As is well known to readers of this site, Minneapolis like most American cities reserves much of its land for houses that only one family can live in. The peculiar aspect of this policy can be seen in comparison to other new world cities, in Australia, Canada, and New Zealand; and the post-World War II suburbs of Western European cities. Policy, practice, and preferences in these cities has also led to swathes of 1-3 story dwellings with backyards. Yet the prohibition on small multi-unit dwellings never took hold to the same extent in other countries of similar incomes and density. The result has been that extreme levels of racial and income segregation are common in American cities and worse in cities with more restrictive zoning [2]. Such extreme levels of segregation are virtually unknown in otherwise similar societies such as Canada and Australia [3].

Removing the restrictions on multi-family building is a necessary step in keeping housing affordable and reducing segregation, but it is not sufficient. Indeed, this can be appreciated by even a casual appraisal of the property listings in Britain, Ireland, Australia, and New Zealand where house price inflation has far outrun what we have seen in Minneapolis. Zoning is an important part of the story, and the problems have been worse in the largest, more attractive cities. The Reserve Bank of Australia, for example, found that the contribution of zoning to Sydney house prices went from a modest $15,000 (AUD) or about 5% of the average house at the turn of the century to $490,000 and about 50% of the cost of the average Sydney house today.

These early twentieth century houses in New Zealand have a harbor view, and will set you back nearly a million dollars, but there are fewer restrictions on multi-family dwellings.

While it’s a little disturbing to realize we’re now nearly two full decades into the 21st century, the lesson should probably be that a zoning-induced housing price crisis can overwhelm a city very quickly. The time to adjust policy is before we’ve really let home values get away. For Minneapolis that is almost certainly now. Once you have a vast constituency of home owners sitting on a nearly effortless tripling of their housing values since purchase it’s going to be even harder to enact reforms that diminish those capital gains.

Sideyards are affordable lawns for rabbits, but not very useful for people.

There is much yet to be debated and seen about how legalizing fourplexes everywhere will change housing supply. The devil is in the details. The financial benefits of small multi-family housing come largely from letting 2-4 families live on the same small lots that currently can only be filled with single family housing. Mandating useless sideyards  merely keeps lawn mowing companies in business, and makes housing more expensive. While the fourplex proposal isn’t everything, it has significant potential. Recent examples of new construction show the potential of small multi-unit construction for increasing housing supply at prices affordable to many. Streets.mn writer Scott Shaffer, and Robin Garwood highlighted actual living examples of this type of housing being built recently.

And yet there is an unfortunate deference to existing structures, both social and physical, in a built form map that doesn’t go nearly far enough in providing the legal basis for gradual increases in the number of people living in Minneapolis’ neighborhoods

Most of the future built form map merely legalizes what is already in place. If we are thinking 20 years into the future, we should be allowing gradual increases in density everywhere. Since we are dealing with a system of private property, in which assembling multiple properties for larger developments is difficult, this means making 6 stories legal everywhere. It won’t be built everywhere, but at least it would be possible.

In a few places we can see the plan looking 20 years into the future, rather than what’s already there. This is the northern end of the 3100-3200 block of 4th St SE, midway between the Prospect Park and Westgate light rail stops.

Looking north from 3100 4th St SE towards “The Link” at Prospect Park station.

If you pan around today it’s a street of 1-2 story homes through 2.5 story 1970s apartments. A fairly typical Minneapolis street. Yet on the future built form map this block is identified (in light blue) as Transit 10, allowing 10 stories by right.

The future built form of this area differs a lot from what exists currently.

Literally across the street a 10 story senior housing development, The Pillars of Prospect Park, is underway (after breaking ground on the 16th of July). A block away an 11 story building with a grocery store has just opened. This is exactly where we should expect 10 story buildings to go. A bit of a change from 2 story homes, but totally consistent with its new neighbors and the scale of development within a quarter-mile of transit in a large cities around the world.

There are other pockets of a forward looking vision. At the south end of Minnehaha Avenue, several blocks of single family homes are marked as Corridor 4 or 6, allowing for buildings of 4 to 6 stories.

Blue is Transit 10-15. Maroon is Corridor 6, and light brown is Corridor 4.

A few minutes walk from the 46th St Blue line station, and near Minnehaha Park, this is also a place where we should let lots of people live. Private property rights being what they are, we shouldn’t expect anything to change in a hurry. But the legal right to let more people into the neighborhood would exist.

But these are exceptions. If Transit 10 is the right designation (it is) for a block of single family homes near the Green Line we should be doing the same around every Blue Line station. We’re not. Here’s the map around 38th St, where most of the Transit 10-20 zones are across Hiawatha from the station, and only a few parcels immediately adjacent to the station are Transit 10.

Draft built form maps around 38th St station

The introduction to the housing section of Minneapolis 2040 does a fantastic job of identifying the segregationist and discriminatory origins of low density zoning, particularly around lakes and parks. And then it proposes a map that would perpetuate some of those inequities into the future. It’s a political document, after all.

Why, if we are looking 20 years into the future, would we have different zoning west of Hennepin by Lake of the Isles than the same distance from downtown east of Hennepin (the Wedge)? If the Southwest light rail is on its way to being built, shouldn’t we have Transit 10 around the 21st St station? Allowing more people to live closer to the parkways by the lakes and rivers would assist in meeting the plan’s stated goals of increasing walkable access to parks.

Proposed built form maps in South Minneapolis maintain lower densities west of Hennepin Avenue.

Why, if distance from downtown and employment centers is a criteria for housing density, is most of Seward “Interior 2” rather than “Interior 3”.

Future built form in Seward and northern Longfellow largely maintains current densities

We already have 3 and 4 story buildings in neighborhood interiors. Some of them are churches, others are schools, and others are apartments that were mostly built before the 1923 and 1964 downzonings of the city.

A 4 story church beside a 2 story house in Marcy-Holmes.

It’s not clear what the harm would be from letting a few more of these buildings be constructed. They already sit harmlessly beside 2 story houses. And so one wonders why the comprehensive plan puts so much technical effort into delineating so precisely where 2.5 stories is fine, but 4 is not. The answer in most cases appears to be that the maps reflect what is currently there, with perhaps the potential to go half a story higher.

By restricting 4 and 6 story development to a relatively small number of intersections and streets, the draft plan risks perpetuating some of the current political challenges to development. With a still limited amount of land in Corridor 4 and Corridor 6 areas, there will remain a tendency for developers to maximize the scale of what is built, with 6 story “5+1” buildings on corridors and 2-3 stories behind them. Moreover the draft map creates a situation where we’ve identified some streets for much more significant potential change than others. If it’s OK to suggest that Nicollet Avenue be 6 stories in the future, it should be equally OK for the shores of Lake Harriet.

The concentration of 4 and 6 story development on corridors also perpetuates our current practices of imposing worse environmental conditions on the residents of larger buildings. Living on a major street (a “corridor” in the language of the plan) exposes residents to higher air pollution from traffic, noise levels, and likely a greater risk of vehicular violence from more traffic.

From the perspective of increasing equity, rightly laid out as a goal in several parts of Minneapolis 2040 we should allow 6 story buildings on streets currently designated as “Interior 1” through “Interior 3”. We probably won’t see a lot of them, because assembling the lots necessary to make 4 and 6 story development feasible will still be challenging in a city that is largely built out. Waiting for enough people on a block to divorce, die, or downsize in quick order so their property can be combined is time consuming. We don’t know now whether those opportunities will arise on streets that currently have bus routes on them (which the plan designates as corridors), or whether those demographic events will occur in neighborhood interiors.

There are truly bold sections of Minneapolis 2040 that recognize the decades-long hiatus we put on normal incremental development, and the cruel discrimination motivating single family zoning. Undoing the effects of those decisions, and foregrounding the principle of equity, requires applying the same principles everywhere. If we can envisage that one modest block of 1-3 story homes might be 10 story buildings in 20 years, we should be doing the same everywhere.

[1]: Recommended reading on this topic includes Sonia Hirt’s Zoned in the USA, Ben Ross’ Dead End, Nathan Lauster’s The Death and Life of the Single Family House, and Richard Rothstein’s The Color of Law.

[2]: Rothwell and Massey show that American cities with more density restrictions have higher levels of racial segregation.

[3] Comparing segregation across different countries is tricky. Johnston and colleagues use several measures to show that hyper segregation, in particular, is much more widespread in the United States.

Evan Roberts

About Evan Roberts

Evan Roberts is an Assistant Professor of Population Studies and the History of Medicine at the University of Minnesota, where he teaches and researches demography, labor and urban issues. He counts it as a successful week if he has run more miles than he has driven. Connect on twitter @evanrobertsnz or now Mastodon @evanrobertsnz@econtwitter.net