The Triplex Revision to the Minneapolis Comprehensive Plan Accomplishes Nothing

It’s been a few days now since the revised “final” draft of the Minneapolis 2040 Comprehensive Plan was released. Of course, anyone who’s paid any attention to this knows that the so-called fourplex proposal has been the hottest issue of the plan since its inception. The biggest revision in the new draft is that the fourplex proposal has been reduced to only allow triplexes on traditional-size city lots. Although the city says this was done for practical purposes, many in the community might view it as a concession to the NIMBYs who have been so vocal throughout the revision process. However, I am not writing to analyze the causes of this revision; rather, its failure to accomplish anything has prompted me to finally contribute to the cloud of discussion surrounding the issue.

Let’s begin with my comment on the old draft:

In regard to ‘traditional size city lots’ affected by draft Policy 1, action steps d and e should be limited to specifically allow the following:

  1. Reconfiguration of existing single-family homes into multiple units.
  2. Construction of 1–4 unit structures on already vacant land.
  3. Construction of 1–4 unit infill structures behind existing structures.

Proposed multi-unit structures that require the demolition of existing single-family home(s) should require a variance if not located along public transit routes or within existing mid- and high-density residential districts.

These compromises to draft Policy 1 (including allowance of variances on a case-by-case basis) would continue to support the goals related to density and affordability and housing access, but also support the goals related to ecology and heritage preservation outlined in the draft Comprehensive Plan.

As you’re probably aware, discussion over the fourplex (now triplex) proposal has been turned into a polarizing, “all or nothing” style debate over density and, by extension, racial and socioeconomic equity. This polarization should not have happened. Obviously, any racist and/or classist motives on behalf of NIMBYs or anyone else are simply wrong. On the other hand, YIMBYs have failed to acknowledge the sheer wastefulness and destruction that unconditional upzoning will produce.

To be clear, I fully support upzoning all parts of the city. However, without the conditions mentioned in my comment above, Minneapolis can expect to see the demolition of thousands of perfectly good structures over the course of several years. This is simply bound to happen as single-family homeowners and/or landlords sell their properties. It will happen because, in terms of design and construction, developers naturally find less-challenging projects to be more attractive. So, in this sense – and putting all other connotations aside – the “Don’t Bulldoze My Neighborhood” signs might have some truth to them. Granted, they are rather dramatic.

Nevertheless, the widespread demolition of existing homes that Minneapolis will gradually begin to see is in clear opposition to the ecological goals outlined by the 2040 plan. The EPA officially reports that about two-thirds of all solid waste in the United States is composed of demolition debris.[1] Furthermore, it can take many decades to recover from that loss of “embodied energy,” or the energy required to produce materials and construct buildings. This remains true even if the replacement structure is built to LEED or even net-zero standards. It’s been said countless times before, but I’ll say it again: the greenest building is the one already built, especially if it is rehabbed for better energy efficiency.

Another consequence of the proposal is that we will inevitably lose a significant number of potential historic and/or architectural resources.[2] Admittedly, I am one who believes there are cultural and psychological benefits to preserving places of historical and architectural value, including vernacular places. However, this needs to be accomplished through adaptive reuse and/or reconfiguration in order to fulfil the demands of a mid-twenty first century city. Obviously we can’t preserve everything, but at the same time there is a lot of room for us to better utilize what is already there.[3]

These two inevitable consequences of bad ecology and poor cultural resource stewardship are why I would have liked to see the aforementioned conditions added to the Minneapolis 2040 Comprehensive Plan. For a multitude of reasons, it is obvious that we need more density. This could have easily been accomplished by giving priority to projects that convert single-family homes into multiple units and/or utilize already vacant land. I acknowledge that the plan allows for conversions to take place, but, as stated before, most developers would rather attempt an easier challenge.

Development Action Sign

While on vacation in Vancouver, Canada earlier this year, I walked by many of these “Development Action” signs. Several of the signs outlined proposals to convert single-family homes into multiple units. Some, like this one, included the addition of an accessory dwelling unit-style infill structure in the back yard. This particular property would be converted into a total of seven (7) units! Furthermore, the transparency of information here is kind of awesome.

Replacing the fourplex proposal with the triplex proposal does nothing to address these consequences. All it does is reduce the allowable mix of density so that new buildings can better fit within the proposed height limits, which should be thought of separately from density. It also makes the prospect of adding density slightly less attractive to developers. Yes, it might be a bigger design challenge to build four dwelling units within those constraints, but why should it not be allowed if there’s still a possibility it can be accomplished?

In short, I am disappointed with this particular aspect of the revised plan as it will continue to have the same consequences as before, but with less density.

PS: Can we stop referring to Minneapolis as being “on the prairie?” It lies solidly within the deciduous forest biome.

[1] “Sustainable Management of Construction and Demolition Materials.” Environmental Protection Agency. Accessed September 2018.
[2] Only a small fraction of properties in Minneapolis are legally protected from demolition as standalone landmarks. Historic districts, on the other hand, do not prohibit demolition; they simply require more intensive design review for exterior modifications.
[3] Instead of using the blanket label of “preservationist,” maybe those who share this balancing act mentality should be referred to as “presurbanists.”

Aaron Person

About Aaron Person

Aaron Person graduated from the University of Minnesota in 2018 with a degree in Urban Studies. His interests include architecture, US and Minnesota history, ships, cities, and the great outdoors.