Rebuttal to a Rebuttal: Let’s Talk Functional Density

Carol Becker is right about one thing in her September 18 opinion piece in the StarTribune (“Let’s Talk About What Density Really Is“): Having 150- to 250-unit apartment buildings spaced a half mile apart or more, with little in between, is not functional density.

That’s it, though; the rest of the opinion piece is, well, wrong.

Becker’s first mistake is assuming that developers will throw up 10-story buildings across the city willy-nilly. Developers are business people; they’re not going to build something the market can’t absorb. Ten-story buildings are more expensive and risky than triplexes or modest four-story buildings, and I’m willing to bet that developers will focus their efforts on getting those big buildings where they know they’ll be successful: along existing transit corridors, and probably no more than a block or two beyond them, not plunked in the middle of a low-density neighborhood like those in southwest Minneapolis.

Becker claims that “most transit routes are not commercial corridors like Lake Street or University Avenue”; rather, they’re lined with single-family homes, she says, conveniently cherry-picking a few minor transit routes as examples. A glance at the Metro Transit system map shows her claim to be false. Snelling, Grand, Nicollet, Broadway, Central, Hennepin and Cedar avenues — to name a few examples in both St. Paul and Minneapolis — all are transit routes with commercial nodes or corridors as well as single- and multi-family housing. Becker fails to tie this statement about transit and low-density homes to her broader thesis. Then she restates her assertion that developers can put new development pretty much wherever they want. Honestly, even if true, I’d be fine with that! Let’s build more things in places where people want to live and where they want to go!

Her third argument, that triplexes don’t create “functional density” and merely drive up prices, is plainly false. Although a block of triplexes is obviously less dense than a block of multi-story apartment buildings, it’s disingenuous to argue that allowing triplexes where you could once build only single-family homes achieves no increase in urban density. Even if only one in 10 single-family homes is converted to a triplex, you’re still adding capacity for 20 percent more households. Given that the average household size in Minneapolis is 2.2, that’s approximately 4.4 more people who will have homes. Convert 10 single-family houses out of 100 into triplexes and suddenly 44 more people have a place to live.

If your concern really is affordability, a quick perusal of Zillow will show that the most affordable (read: less than $200,000) homes are a) in multi-family buildings or b) in neighborhoods that have suffered decades of disinvestment. Similarly, if your concern is that classic Minneapolis bungalows will be torn down for some new-construction monstrosity, that’s already happening. It’s just that massive, overpriced single-family homes are replacing smaller, more affordable “starter homes” in many parts of the city, as that’s all that can be built under the current ordinances.

If continuing to zone most of a city for single-family houses does anything positive for affordability, I have yet to see it. I’m no economist, or developer, but I’m pretty sure that constructing one building for, say, $500,000 is more affordable to the end user when they’re splitting the cost of living in said building with two other households.

Maps of Seattle and Minneapolis showing that both cities are largely zoned for exclusively single-family homes

Single-family zoning in Seattle and Minneapolis (Graphic: Jiachuan Wu and Jeremia Kimelman / NBC News)

Becker next invokes Seattle as an example of how to create “real, functional density.” But Seattle is hardly a model to follow. Its decision to focus development in only a few small parts of the city has contributed to its status as the most expensive city for renters outside of California (check out the map above to see how much of Seattle’s land is dedicated to single-family homes). Though its recent apartment-building boom has led to some of the slowest rent increases in the country, the Seattle City Council is now considering an end to single-family zoning to further combat the affordability crisis.

Becker also says we created a walkable downtown and North Loop under the old zoning code, which is mostly true (I think we could make downtown a lot more walkable), then claims that the new zoning code would fail to create anything similar without explaining why that might be the case.

Let’s move onto Becker’s assertion that the Blue Line light rail shows we don’t need much transit-oriented development in the Twin Cities. She first recites the Star Tribune Editorial Board’s claim that “we need to allow 10-story buildings into currently residential areas.” Aren’t 10-story apartment buildings also residential? I’m not sure how having some big residential buildings in a neighborhood would conflict with smaller, single-unit residential buildings, but I digress.

Becker goes on to say that the low-density, sometimes auto-centric uses near the Blue Line are evidence that we don’t need to upzone five blocks away from future transit stations. (The examples she cited conveniently ignore new developments near the Blue Line, such as a few new apartment developments along the corridor and a brewery near the 46th Street station.) Looking at her argument in a vacuum may make it seem logical, but the neat thing about cities is that they don’t exist in a vacuum.

Several issues may explain the relative lack of high-density development near Blue Line stations. It’s right next to a highway! Hiawatha Avenue acts as a barrier. The railroad tracks on the opposite side of Hiawatha from the light rail only exacerbate the divisive effect. Most of the zoning in neighborhoods served by the Blue Line (outside of downtown, of course) is still low-density residential. One might see this and conclude that the lack of intensive development surrounding the Blue Line is due to lack of demand rather than to policies that actively restrict the land uses that support good transit. Layer in neighborhood opposition to developments that might lead to “functional density” and you’ve got a recipe for the auto-centric area around the Blue Line 15 years after it opened.

Becker chose to gloss over the other Twin Cities example showing how transit can catalyze development: the Green Line. (This is of special note given that she mentions the Green Line extension as reason to focus density in a small area.) The Green Line opened a mere five years ago and spurred at least $4.2 billion in private investment, as well as the construction of more than 15,000 new housing units. Funny how Becker omits this evidence that high-quality transit does, in fact, tend to promote higher-density development.

Becker concludes her farcical argument with the bold claim that the Minneapolis 2040 comprehensive plan is merely a way to enrich developers. (The ways in which current zoning enriches homeowners is a topic for a future post.) The final assertion in this excruciatingly wrong opinion piece masquerading as fact is that “functional density” doesn’t “just happen” and that development has to be focused to achieve that. To that I say: We’ve tried the “focused development” approach for as long as we’ve dedicated most of our city’s land exclusively to single-family houses, and look where it’s gotten us. It’s long past time to try something new.

About Frankie Stolarski

Frankie is your typical millennial fighting for better cities and a better world with a particular interest in transportation, but not cars.

32 thoughts on “Rebuttal to a Rebuttal: Let’s Talk Functional Density

  1. Karen E Sandness

    As a resident of one of the few affordable apartment buildings in Linden Hills, I am offended at the way some of my neighbors horrified by the prospect of more apartments but seem perfectly fine with the increasing number of small and/or older houses that are being torn down to make way for trophy houses that look as if they were flown in from Eagan and plunked down.

    I suspect that the objection to more apartments is largely sociological. The opponents see apartments as full of “transients” and maybe even (gasp!) non-whites. They don’t see all the duplexes and triplexes that have long existed in the neighborhood without ruining it.

    Ironically, the most recent multi-family development consists of luxury condos on the corner of 43rd and Upton where Famous Dave’s used to be.

    1. Tim

      The funny thing is, Eagan’s been on a multifamily building push lately and has quite a bit in the pipeline as well. The growth will happen in the Twin Cities one way or another; it’s just a question of where.

  2. Harrision

    The 2040 density advocates who cheer the triplexification of the whole city as victory in the battle over rich white homeowners with their #UpzoneKenwood hashtags and endless disparaging comments about the Lakes area have overestimated the impact this will have on proliferating affordable housing into pricy areas of the city. When people pay $600k to tear down a house and build a new one on the same spot, you can’t expect to see affordable triplex apartments appear there.

    The 2040 opponents who red-bulldozer-sign extreme in their opposition overstate the impact as well, there are triplexes among them they don’t even see and if the city holds the line on building size and FAR, they won’t change the character if the neighborhood even if the ratio of multi-family to single family goes a up a bit. And if people are going to pay $3000 in rent or buy a $500k condo in small building, they are going to expect a garage.

    The people most negatively impacted are people on those primarily single family or small residential building streets far from downtown tagged Transit Corridors,, where they now face the real scenario of the bungalow next door being replaced by a 4 story or taller apartment building.

    The author criticizes Becker for cherry picking some transit corridors that are primarily residential and then proceeds to cherry pick bigger ones that are not. Fact is as you get far from downtown you encounter primarily single family, small residential build out on these streets with an occasional node of commercial activity – but since the city chose to ignore commercial nodes and run a highlighter down the transit streets those don’t impact zoning the way they should.

    While density proponents such as the author are fine with large development anywhere in the city people want to live, that attitude is not universal and some people just like to look out the back window and see a tree a roof and the sky, not a wall of windows or balconies. Moving the goal posts after people have made a commitment to the area to such a dramatic degree for the Transit corridor streets (and many of the adjacent blocks) has been a blow to many. On top of all of that, 2040 stubbornly refuses to implement any hard height limits on the corridors the way it does on interior (even Corridor 3, the lowest and reserved for 2 lane “corridors” includes the get-out-of-jail-free language giving developers the roadmap to go higher than 3 stories.

    1. Adam MillerAdam Miller

      Yes, it’s exhausting that we’re still squabbling over triplexes, which aren’t really going to be that big of a deal. There won’t be that many and they won’t go up that fast.

      But ya know what? That’s also true of 4 story buildings on “primarily single family or small residential building streets far from downtown.” How can we tell? Well, those places don’t already have larger buildings, even though they were mostly built out before there really was a zoning code. Turns out that things other than the zoning code matter in determining what gets built where. Huh.

    2. Alex CecchiniAlex

      You’re absolutely right, tearing down a $600k house will lead to 3 very expensive triplex units. There’s also the option to subdivide, which costs far less and is technically less appealing to would-be-residents, which yields more affordable units. But this also highlights how much of a compromise triplexes everywhere was. We could have allowed 4, 6, XX story apartments/condos everywhere and the result would have been cheaper (or a more diverse array of options) in places like Kenwood, Linden Hills, Fulton, etc.

      The transit/commercial corridors far from downtown are primarily single family even on the corridors because they were built after the city started implementing strong zoning codes. Look at the neighborhoods built pre-1940, as far south as ~38th St. 3-4 unit buildings, 3.5 story apartment buildings, and much more proliferate not just transit corridors, but many, many side streets as well. This was natural and okay and people lived healthy happy lives in both the bigger buildings and the single family homes next door.

      The problem isn’t a lack of hard height limits on major streets, it’s that there is a hard limit on side streets. It’s great that some people want to look out their window and see a tree or their exact amount of sky, but other people wanting to literally live in a place that meets their desires – unit size, style (townhome/condo/apartment/shared space/other), layout, school zone, proximity to [work, daycare, their favorite restaurants, parks, lakes, shopping, friends, family, etc], or even balancing many of those as they settle on a spot in the metro, trumps that desire for a view. By, like, a long shot.

      The more land you allow more housing styles on, including buildings that need to be 4+ stories to justify the up-front costs (or elevator costs, or underground parking, or whatever else) means the more likely we are to see it get built. Limiting anything but SFHs, or triplexes in the 2040 plan, to transit corridors means we won’t see as many of them built, and more people will be forced to live somewhere they maybe wouldn’t have wanted to, and at the same time housing prices will rise in Minneapolis.

    3. Frankie Stolarski Post author

      I never said a $600k building would house affordable apartments; just that a $600k triplex would be more affordable than a $600k single-family home. I still don’t quite understand how living next to a four-story residential building is so much worse than a 2- or 3-story one. There are plenty of three-story single-family homes throughout Minneapolis. Adding a fourth story and a few extra families is really not devastatingly life-changing. The people who are negatively impacted by existing zoning are the ones who are priced out of their neighborhoods by its restrictions, so forgive me for not being particularly concerned with the people who want to preserve the feeling of living in the suburbs at others’ expense.

      Of course I cherry-picked transit routes with fewer single-family homes; the whole point was countering Becker’s non sequitur. Obviously there are some routes that operate in primarily single-family areas but it’s disingenuous to act like they’re the majority. Fact is, we live in a city, and for far too long people have been trying to prevent its growth. Tall buildings aren’t the end of the world. Whether or not you want Minneapolis to grow, it’s going to, and we can at least plan for letting it happen in a way that’s sustainable and promotes affordability. That’s what this plan is good for.

      1. Monte Castleman

        You don’t see how a four story building would block a lot more sunlight than a 2 story building? Or have a lot more and higher windows to look over your yard? Or bring a lot more people to the neighborhood to compete for a fixed supply of on-street parking?

        1. Andrew Evans

          That’s not the point Monte. They are saying home owners should be disenfranchised when their views don’t align with those that want a higher density city.

          I mean why listen to anyone who has made a large investment in their house and has a 15 or 30 year mortgage and who on average will stay around longer than renters in a given neighborhood.

          Not that everything has to happen to homeowners wishes, but they can’t be ignored completely.

          1. Adam MillerAdam Miller

            Please use your vote how you would like, but you’re not disenfranchised if it doesn’t carry the day.

            Also, I personally think it’s pretty gross to imply that the views of homeowners deserve extra consideration.

      2. Harrison

        “forgive me for not being particularly concerned with the people who want to preserve the feeling of living in the suburbs at others’ expense”

        I’m sorry but it’s just that kind of condescending smug and dismissive attitude that poisoned so much of the 2040 dialog.

        No one who has a single family home in Minneapolis thinks they are living in the suburbs. They have chosen to pay probably more than a similar house in the suburbs would cost to live on a 40′ wide postage stamp of land with neighbors they can see into their houses, probably a detached garage they have to walk to in the rain and snow, and for what? to be in a walkable pedestrian neighborhood, close to downtown, and a lot of amenities.

        We have neighbors who live in single family homes in the city who don’t have a car. Try that in the suburbs.

        They may have made compromises on schools for their kids to get them a diverse experience or because they believe it’s so important to be part of the community that supports a wide range of families of different social and economic backgrounds.

        You should take a drive (or bike or bus ride) into the suburbs to re-calibrate to their spread out car-centric homesteads of attached garages and riding lawn mowers which defines the suburbs – because it ain’t what you find in the city. Then perhaps you can revisit your judgement of people who have chosen to live in the close quarters of the city but don’t want to do so next to a large apartment building.

  3. Bruce BrunnerBruce Brunner

    Carol knows building a duplex or triplex is more affordable than a SFH since she has been shown how the financials work so for her to argue otherwise would be disingenuous now that she understand how it works.

    There is no silver bullet that solves all things, that is why we need more 2-3 unit construction, we need to be able to add ADU’s to current non owner occupied duplexes, we need to add more 4-5 story apartment buildings, ect ect ect. The system of keeping over 60% of the land exclusive to SFH’s is an old concept that needs to evolve- No one is taking away your SFH and you can still build them in any of the places you could before, now you just have a choice of additional options.

    1. Andrew Evans

      An ADU, unattached, is more than likely around $100k on the cheap side. Building a duplex or triplex (or whatever plex) is more expensive than a home, however the additional units themselves are way cheaper – iirc something like $40-$60k more per unit.

      The question is who is going to build them in affordable areas?

      You’re seeing development in NE because they can either charge the rents or the prices to support building there. The same with along the river and around downtown.

      On the other side the PPL apartments by me in North took something like 7 years of planning and funding before ground was broke. Across the street there is an equally sized lot that may sit for another 10 years because it’s not economically feasible for a private company to build there. For that matter in Stevens Square off of 18th and Nicollet, the lot there is FINALLY being developed after being mostly empty for at least 15 years now maybe more.

      I’m also not sure who “you” is. Maybe some are deciding to build a multi story home and be a live in landlord, but that’s not for everyone – especially those who have the means and wealth to more or less build dream homes. Personally the only reason I’d build an ADU is I want a taller garage that I can put a car lift in, so I can get another Porsche and store it, but still, although I could do it, it’s hard to want to pull the trigger on what could be $80k.

      My neighbor who partly owns a rental company could easily build more properties. The problem is he would build more luxury ones for the neighborhood and charge premiums for rent. Well, and he wants to get out of the game due to new regulations and getting tired of going to court for evictions.

      What you’re left with is what’s really going on today. That density will go into more desireable neighborhoods, and a lot of the empty lots in North will stay. At some point yes, my house on Lyndale in North will be tore down for apartments, but I’d have to venture to guess that’s at least 20 years out, once the empty lots fill in more.


  4. Elizabeth Larey

    The question I have is why people think they have a “right” to live in Minneapolis at a price they can afford. Do you think this conversation is going on in New York, Boston, Miami or countless other major metropolitan area? I don’t think so. Supply and demand will dictate housing costs, it’s really that simple. Unless you think the government should step in with price controls. Maybe some of you do, I don’t know. I’ve said before, keep it up and you will drive the people who pay the highest taxes out of the city. Then you’ll have all the affordable housing you want because nobody will want to live here anymore.

      1. Elizabeth Larey

        Really? I haven’t seen anything outside of Seattle and Portland. Seriously, where would I look to find that info?

    1. Andrew Evans

      That’s the flip side. Although a few metro areas are different. NYC due to (IMO) parking and commuting is pretty self contained and once you get 20-30 miles out in places your in the country. The same would go for some other larger cities that may be constrained by geographic features. However, here it may be a little different since it’s so spread out.

      Time will tell, which is the danger of doing things fast for political gain. The positive or negative side effects sometimes come in well after those who implemented them are out of office.

      1. Elizabeth Larey

        That is the big worry. Look how quickly the city of Minneapolis tore down their beautiful downtown. In retrospect, I think most people would agree that was a mistake. St Paul didn’t and the area around Rice Park is still stunning to this day.

        1. Andrew Evans

          Well that’s just it. The problem is that a lot of the time the “right side of history” is only known long after the event or period. Mpls demolishing buildings in downtown is way before my time, but didn’t it go on for a good 10-20 years before it finally reached a peak?

          Similar, in revolutionary France there were many cathedrals torn down and stain glass windows removed before they had the idea that it was getting out of hand. Cluny had the 2nd or 3rd largest cathedral in the world (still would be) if it wasn’t almost completely demolished then. Visiting there a great reminder of what good intentions can end up causing.

          Is tearing down some of these (to us) functionally obsolete mansions and Victorians to build new apartments a mistake. Time will tell.

    2. Frankie Stolarski Post author

      Why do you think anyone would not have the right to live where they please? It’s not like people are asking to live in lakefront mansions for $600 a month. I don’t think asking for an affordable apartment near transit and desirable destinations/amenities is really too much, and I’m not sure why some people are so concerned with controlling who lives around them.

      1. Harrison

        Aren’t they though? This is the essence of why people with “All are welcome” and also “don’t bulldoze” signs have been subject to such ridicule and demonization by density advocates.

        Somehow advocates have decided that even if you are open minded and welcoming to people of all backgrounds (racial, religious etc…..) but you are not open to a large affordable housing development next door, that you would like to preserve basic market economics, you’re not truly welcoming.

      2. Elizabeth Larey

        There is a perfect solution, but many find it not so. There are so many areas in north and northeast Minneapolis that would love to have affordable housing built. The land is affordable, and the city could easily work with the transit to make sure those needs were met.
        But as Mr. Stolarski states above, many think that have some kind of a right to affordable housing near desirable destinations and amenities. That’s where I disagree. The cost of land is dictated by supply and demand. That’s simply a fact. The more desirable a location, the higher cost of the land. I don’t feel you have a “right” to it because you want it. That’s not how life works.
        If you want affordable housing you need to find affordable land. It’s on the north side, and many would welcome the investment in their communities.

        1. Chris B

          “There are so many areas in north and northeast Minneapolis that would love to have affordable housing built. The land is affordable, and the city could easily work with the transit to make sure those needs were met.”

          The thing is, those affordable neighborhoods are affordable for a reason – they often have poor access to transit, parks, good jobs, and good schools, and are frequently food deserts. Once those amenities improve and housing prices increase, those needing affordable housing are forced further out to the next “affordable” neighborhood until that too gentrifies. This exacerbates and continues the trend of the have-nots (who, in Minneapolis, are too often POC and/or immigrants) being shuffled around decade-by-decade to the least safe, least desirable neighborhoods, where their children are raised with the same disadvantages, and the cycle continues.
          This has, more or less, been the historical trend that the 2040 plan is hoping to work against. By integrating affordable housing into desirable neighborhoods, children can grow up in communities that provide opportunities & resources their parents didn’t have, and hopefully chip away at the cycles of poverty and horrible racial inequality that our city has.

          1. Elizabeth Larey

            I think you’re missing my point. You can’t build affordable housing in the best areas. It’s an oxymoron. Who pays for it? The developer is not going to. Then that leaves the city, and they aren’t going to subsidize your affordable apartment in the best part of town. Which leads me back to my originals premise, people do not have a right. You need to call it a desire because that’s what it is.
            Used to be people were fine with affordable places. When I moved here I lived in a tiny place off of Dale. I worked two jobs for two years to save to get out of there. A lot of my friends lived with 2 or 3 roommates. Ever think of that as an option? For some reason a lot of younger workers don’t want to do that. Reality check time.

            1. Chris B

              Sorry, but you’re absolutely missing the point – the 2040 zoning discussion isn’t about giving people free or even subsidized housing in the “best neighborhoods,” it is about lifting single-family zoning restrictions that created only one, expensive type of housing in vast swaths of the city. Zoning restrictions that historically, were often placed with the deliberate purpose of pricing out immigrant and minority communities. Without these restrictions in place, the idea is that smaller, more affordable, -market rate- housing options will be available in more and better neighborhoods.
              No one is getting a handout or subsidy in this scenario.

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