Will Minneapolis 2040 Live Up to its Promise?

The City of Minneapolis invites comment on the Built Form Rezoning Study through October 19th. 

Minneapolis spent 2018 discussing the merits of the Minneapolis 2040 plan. As a city, there is wide consensus that we face three critical and interconnected challenges:

  • Racial disparities
  • Poor and worsening housing affordability
  • Climate change

No one policy or action created these challenges, and there is no silver bullet. The adopted Minneapolis 2040 plan includes a 10-year workplan of 100 unique policies aiming at these challenges. The City Council paired the plan with ordinances or inclusionary zoning and tenants rights, and more affordable housing investment. Another critical solution is reforming our zoning code. This will allow affordable homes in historically exclusionary neighborhoods, and add more homes to every neighborhood in the city – especially those closest to transit. We need all the solutions! 

To achieve the goals in the plan, the implementation must be as ambitious as the plan itself. The built form recommendations are one key part of charting a different future. The Interior zone recommendations in the Built Form Rezoning Study do not implement the commitments made in the Minneapolis 2040 plan. They are a status quo recommendation. The status quo preserves our racial disparities, our worsening housing affordability, and makes it hard to achieve our climate mitigation goals.

Reviewing the Adopted 2040 Built Form Interior Intent 

2040 plan promised a mix of land use solutions:

  • Allowing new buildings in the time-tested shapes and forms that characterize Minneapolis Interior neighborhoods today. We can relegalize constructing the building types in Interior zones while also reinforcing the bulk and height of older buildings. This allows our city to accommodate growth and changes in housing preferences while honoring the familiar rhythm of our neighborhoods’ streets. 
  • Expanded new home options beyond larger apartment buildings on commercial corridors. Most of the new homes making space for the 53,307 additional people who have moved to Minneapolis since 2010 are on commercial corridors. Those are great options, and commercial corridors aren’t right for everyone. We need options throughout all our neighborhoods, as we’ve had for all our history.  
  • More affordable types of new homes. Construction costs for triplexes and small scale walk-ups are lower than for larger buildings. Elevators are expensive and larger buildings need more concrete, more excavation, more developer time, and more risk for the bank, all of which drive up the cost. Sharing the cost of land between multiple families and avoiding more expensive building types lowers the cost of new homes. Building “Missing Middle” types of homes has been disallowed or nearly impossible to build for decades. The plan committed to relegalize constructing them.

Minneapolis 2040 promised a return to an older pattern of development. That’s the pattern that shaped most Minneapolis neighborhoods, before we imposed suburban-style single-use zoning in the last major zoning code revision in 1963. That code segregated uses, segregated building types, and segregated people by income and race.

While the plan didn’t include much detail, there were helpful images in the plan. The three Interior designations recognize that our neighborhoods have dramatically different characters. If we want new additions to them to fit in, Lowry Hill needs different rules than Waite Park or Howe or Stevens Square.

These Minneapolis 2040 graphics illustrate the intent for Interior 1. This includes the parts of Minneapolis furthest from Downtown, like Camden or Nokomis.

Rendering of street with one- and two-story buildings
Interior 1 graphics

These Interior 2 images show what to allow in “parts of the city that developed during the era when streetcars were a primary mode of transportation, in the areas in between transit routes, and on select streets with intermittent local transit service.”

Graphic with two- and three-story buildings, including multi-family homes
Interior 2 graphics

Interior 3 is “city closest to downtown, in the areas in between transit routes.” These images show what Minneapolis 2040 will allow in neighborhoods like Whittier, Stevens Square, or Marcy Holmes.

Graphic of street with apartment buildings, duplexes, triplexes
Interior 3 graphics

The Recommendations

The Built Form Rezoning Study translates the 2040 plan into detailed ordinance language. It has two core goals, to align the plan and the code, and to create predictability for people building in Minneapolis. Our zoning code hasn’t been significantly updated since the 2000 comprehensive plan. The inconsistencies between the zoning and the 2010 comprehensive plan (thanks to Section 437.585 of Minnesota State Law that states the comp plan takes precedence over zoning if there is a conflict), meant that nearly every project required a variance. 

So, how does this recommendation rate? 

I give the Corridor and Transit area recommendations a positive review. They work for new construction, and the premium system is a smart way to incentivize what we as a city agreed we need in Minneapolis 2040. I dislike the specific premium that encourages building enclosed parking. If you are allowed more building with enclosed parking than without it, that’s an incentive for more expensive rents and parking, even while we know more parking encourages driving and what we want is less driving.

The Interior recommendations, however, miss the mark. In particular, Interior 2 and Interior 3 are status quo recommendations. They won’t allow us to build more homes that match the older pattern of development that shaped most of the neighborhoods. 

What Happened? 

I asked the city for more information on how they developed their regulations. I learned they’ve worked back from what was built the last five years. The result of basing the recommended regulations on development over the last five years, when most development has taken place in these corridors, are very workable regulations for constructing new buildings in Corridor zones.

On the other hand, Interior zone neighborhoods are where we implemented exclusionary zoning. It’s where we face the challenges with McMansions and teardowns. Those Interior zones are where we most need change to undo our past mistakes. These neighborhoods have been encased in amber for decades, with development limited to McMansion construction, because by definition they had exclusionary single-family zoning. Whether you dislike McMansions or crave Missing Middle homes, it’s clear that the zoning in our residential neighborhoods failed to get the outcomes we want and need. Undoing failed zoning by basing new rules on the development that occurred under that failed zoning is a cycle doomed to repeat past failures. If you want to get the diversity of buildings we used to have, you have to work back from what you want.

What Now?

The City Planners and the Planning Commission need to press “Pause” on the current Interior recommendations. The City needs to take two next steps. First, review what was adopted in Minneapolis 2040. Second, restart the research for Interior neighborhoods. 

It is unquestionably disappointing to delay adoption of these changes. But, getting this right is the only way we can allow enough additional homes in exclusionary areas that we can begin to undo the harms of exclusion. Exclusion drives racial disparities, boosts housing costs, and grows climate-changing emissions from car-dependent neighborhoods and large energy-hogging homes. 

This is an incredibly complex shift that we are taking on. We must leave behind a prescriptive 1963 zoning code that imposed suburban values of homogeneity and too-big lots onto our historically diverse and affordable neighborhoods. 

There may not be enough in-house staff capacity to take on this large shift. I suspect that the reason the process worked from recently approved projects is that the data is accessible. I suggest we budget to hire Opticos or another experienced form-based zoning code expert to evaluate our existing neighborhoods and develop recommendations. Beyond the question of capacity, Minneapolis is a national model. If we don’t get it right, we may make it more difficult for other cities to reform their zoning.

Specific Suggestions

I hope this revision will eliminate (or dramatically reduce) minimum lot sizes. 10-15% of homes in Minneapolis are on lots that are below the current minimum lot size of 5,000 square feet – my spouse’s home is one of six in a row of 3,100 sqf lots. There are nine homes on his side of that block. All the homes are 100+ years old, and they are the definition of what is typical — and most affordable — in the neighborhood.

I hope this revision will also differentiate between the three Interior categories. There is currently not a significant difference between the Interior 1 and Interior 2 districts, even though most Interior 2 districts were built-out as streetcar urbanism. In some areas, they have as much density as any Interior 3 district.

These are buildings common in Interior 2 neighborhoods, photographed walking around my neighborhood. They provide disproportionately more homes than other buildings nearby. The walk-up apartments are an important part of the mix with duplexes or triplexes, single family homes, with a mansion tossed in here and there. Some are 3½ stories with four levels of apartments and flat roof nearly filling the lot. Let’s make sure our soon-to-be-adopted floor-area-ratio (FAR), set backs, and lot coverage allow us to build more of them.

The below buildings are common in Interior 3. Again, let’s make sure we can add more where we have our best transit, most walkable streets, and easy access to groceries and a host of other services. 

I hope we’ll add a “Premium” to all Interior neighborhoods, specifically for building affordable homes. Set the standard high, with the premium of an increased FAR if half of the units built are deeply affordable. That model, recently passed by Portland, promises to offer greater affordability in every neighborhood with reduced subsidies. 

The Time is Now!

To get this right, we need to start by evaluating existing buildings, the ones that feel right to us as we wander our neighborhoods. Assess the whole mix, the walk-ups, the duplexes and triplexes (and even fourplexes!), and don’t forget the subdivided mansions. We need to assess typical building widths and heights, set-backs, and floor area ratios. Then, working backwards from what’s already in the neighborhoods that we love, work out what rules we need. 

So, let’s get this right. If we do, we can both welcome more people in our city and renting or buying a home will be more affordable. If we get it wrong, we’ll make it cost-prohibitive to build more homes, low income renters and homeowners will continue to be displaced, our racial disparities won’t budge, and people who can’t afford our city will drive even more sprawl. The last time we made a revision to our zoning code this major was 1963. If we don’t get it right now, we may have to wait for 2087. 

Share your thoughts on the draft built form regulations in the rezoning study here. You have until October 19th. If you like the goals of Minneapolis 2040, if you want to end racial disparities, if you want more affordable homes, if you are all in on mitigating climate change, it’s time to show up and comment and contact your city council member again. 

About Janne Flisrand

Janne Flisrand spends her time thinking about how people interact with the space around them. Why do they (or don't they) walk or bike or shop somewhere? How do spaces feel? Why do people sit here and not there? Why bus instead of bike, bike instead of drive? What sorts of spaces build community, and what sorts kill it? Can spaces build civic trust and engagement?

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12 thoughts on “Will Minneapolis 2040 Live Up to its Promise?

  1. Bill LindekeBill Lindeke

    I really like how you framed this as comporting with historical built form. If we could only build housing as we did a hundred years ago, we’d be doing pretty well! Unfortunately, our code does not permit historic density.

    1. jkflisrand

      The new plan should be the historical built form and the old plan — minus exclusionary zoning in places where the old plan excluded people.

  2. Miguelito

    The reform was not paired with any increase in allowable height or size for structures themselves. So three units can now be built where only one was permitted before, but the allowable built space is the same. It remains to be seen how profitable it will be for homeowners or builders to subdivide houses or build two or three new units that are much smaller than a single-unit house would be permitted to be. Allowing larger buildings could make more triplex conversions more comfortable and most importantly, profitable.

    1. Monte Castleman

      Probably because adding additional units in the existing form doesn’t impact existing property owners nearly as much . Maybe more people in a triplex you have a few more people driving down the street to work in the morning, but can you imagine how little sunlight and privacy you’d have if those three story brick apartment buildings were built on all three sides of your bungalow?

  3. Dion K. Lange

    Spot-on article. This ill-conceived plan should be put on hold until a competent council is seated.

    1. Janne Flisrand Post author

      I hope my article was clear: the challenge is that the Interior portion of staff-written draft recommendations do not keep to the intent of the plan. Staff are failing Minneapolis residents, and it is up to the Planning Commission and the City Council to hold staff accountable to the vision and intent of the plan.

  4. Mike

    Can you cite a reference for the fact that building costs are lower for these small scale triplex like buildings than larger developments – certainly they are on an absolute scale but relative to number of units or size of units? What I remember from the 2040 discussion was that these small buildings were not as cost effective to build as larger developments so expectations for their rate of adoption should be low, except as high end boutique type buildings where they can use high end finishes and get more margin for the cost of development. There were articles in MinnPost and the Strib to that effect. Also an important part of the zoning change that seems to get overlooked here is the ability to do conversion of existing buildings to duplex/triplex city-wide, rental or condo: that will probably be the most useful advance with regards to less expensive housing options and I assume an existing building will not be affected by FAR limits.


    1. Janne Flisrand Post author

      The lower cost for walk-up buildings references direct construction costs, an issue that isn’t addressed in the MinnPost article you linked to. (Everything in that article is spot on, it just speaks to a different aspect of providing housing that people can afford.) We need to address both direct construction costs, AND how to make sure everyone can afford a home. The Built Form policies speak only to the first — unless as I hope the Premium for affordable housing is extended to all Interior zones.

      There’s broad agreement that smaller buildings have lower direct construction costs. This blog (advertising a company’s services) provides the most clear comparison I have seen.


      There are many details that go into the lower construction costs, some of which I named above.
      -smaller buildings are less complicated in design and construction
      -walk-ups have less interior space for circulation
      -elevators are expensive (equipment, engineering, construction costs, space)
      -larger buildings need more concrete, more excavation
      -larger buildings require more detailed design (architect and engineering fees)
      -larger buildings are less predictable and therefore more developer time (approvals, financing) and more risk for the bank
      -as always, parking and especially structured parking, is expensive

      1. Cmfischer

        I am an incremental developer attempting to add a 6-plex, three story walk up to the rear of an 8,000 sf lot in Minneapolis while preserving the existing duplex on the site.

        On the question of construction costs, I can say definitively that adding my proposed structure with anything less than 6 units wouldn’t break even. Excavation, foundation, utility lines, sidewalk/street repair, and roof system are all more or less fixed costs at the 1-6 unit scale for a project like mine.

        I disagree with the assertion that design and other costs are much lower on a relative basis. I have still had to deal with all the complexity and requirements of the commercial building code.

        The type of square footage matters a lot. Building student style apartments (lots of bedrooms and just one kitchen / fewer baths) is far cheaper per square foot than the 1-bed configurations I am building, but the rents required to support those kinds of units aren’t affordable for families at missing middle scale…only group housing renters that think in terms of rent per bedroom.

        I can only speak to my project, but i know it would have been far more profitable for me to tear down the duplex and build a 25-30 unit apartment building (which would have been allowed in my corridor 3 lot.

        I chose the 6-plex root—which has been far more challenging and complicated from a design and approval perspective—because I also want to preserve the NOAH Duplex I have and minimize the carbon footprint of my project.

        Unfortunately, I don’t think there are a ton of developers like me who are willing to build a project for a fairly low (and long term) financial return to achieve these other goals.

        I mostly wanted to contribute my experience on costs to this discussion. Hope it’s a helpful data point!

  5. Deb

    I am concerned that the role of small business and hospitality are not a part of the conversation. Small businesses add jobs, safety, eyes on the street, a place to gather, support for local efforts from sport teams to ice cream socials but they need customers, and customers don’t all walk, bike or bus. Parking is a huge component to their success because many businesses need to draw from more than a few block radius. And as we all know the lack of support for our neighborhood businesses has been abysmal recently, and they are struggling from the many fees imposed, the cost of rent, of property taxes, insurance, utilities, goods and payroll, not to mention the violence, the riots, the damage and covid.

    In the past year I have found myself driving to the suburbs for more and more of the items I need, a movie or dinner out, as have my neighbors. At the same time friends and family who live out of the city are coming in less and less.

    Uptown has lost most of the businesses I once supported and provided the supplies from kids sport equipment, to kitchen needs, to birthday presents, on and on..small restaurants have become late night drinking establishments..and but for cov-ld, I do not want to leave the theatre to walk home in the dark, in the rain, only to be mugged on the way home.

    While Target etc can build their own parking lot, small business can’t.they need help..and we used to do just that. Lynlake Business Assoc came up with an amazing plan to help with parking in years past, that the city is now trying to eliminate., sadly.

    Please consider both housing, and other community needs as a whole…

  6. Nathanael Nerode

    I wish you the best of luck. You have identified the problem quite accurately: modeling allowable built form on the stuff built in the last 5 years just embeds the current zoning code failures forever, dooming the city to McMansions. I hope you can stay organized and get this done. Being on the other side of the country I don’t feel I can make government comment on the Minneapolis code, but you are right that what you do here and now will have an impact on future decisions in other cities, including mine.

    Good luck!

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