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.