Minneapolis 2040’s First Real Test: 635 Van Buren Street NE

The Minneapolis 2040 Plan was a true accomplishment and vision for more housing, reducing inequity and improving sustainability. It set the stage for many other cities and states across the country to push for and succeed in adopting new, denser zoning laws. For the first time since its 12-1 passage, that Plan is now being put to the test with the 635 Van Buren Street NE project.

The project proposes to replace a single-family rental with a 23-unit residential building that complies with the 2040 land use and built form policies. It further supports 2040 sustainability goals by seeking Passive House certification, generating solar electricity on-site, being located near transit, and hosting bike rather than car parking.

Minneapolis has a new slate of Planning Commissioners. At their March 21st meeting, where 635 Van Buren’s rezoning application was heard, a number of Commissioners were unfortunately not quick to defend the most basic concept of a comprehensive plan – that it guide future zoning and development. 

If you haven’t read it yet, Bill Lindeke provides a great narrative about the project in his recent MinnPost article. Here, I seek to add additional detail regarding the development timeline and the specific legal (or not legal) arguments given at the Planning Commission meeting for denying the project’s rezoning application.

A brief history of the development of 635 Van Buren:

  • Owner of the single-family rental learns tenants will be buying a house and moving in a year. He decides it is the perfect time for redevelopment because he avoids tenant displacement.
  • According to the 2040 plan, the property is located within Corridor 6, as it’s within a few hundred feet of the future BRT F line. 
  • Owner wants to develop a multifamily building. Because the City has not formally rezoned all parcels yet, individual developments must be rezoned on a case-by-case basis.  The property is currently R1 and must be rezoned to R3.
  • November 2021 – Owner-now-developer reaches out to the local St. Anthony East Neighborhood Association (SAENA) to begin community engagement. SAENA prepares and mails out a notice to all neighbors about a January meeting about the development. Note – a board member is a direct neighbor to the proposed development.
  • Developer engages the sustainability-focused, women-led Precipitate Architecture firm to design a 23-unit, super energy efficient, Passive House building that stands 39 feet tall, which is toward the lower end of what is allowed by Corridor 6 (max 84 ft).
  • January 2022 – Community engagement session held. Many voice direct and indirect (mostly about parking, shading, and privacy for homeowners) complaints about the replacement of single-family home with 23-unit multifamily building.
  • Developer team incorporates good-faith community feedback about demolition waste recycling, bike access/safety, and neighbor garage access into design. Rents for the design are expected to be set at 80% AMI.
  • March 2022 – Planning Commission virtual meeting. City staff recommend rezoning and site plan approval upon conditions (which is normal). Developer agrees to most of the conditions* and changes the design to match.  Developer seeks to prioritize the community’s feedback about locating the bike room to the front of the building among a few other condition details. Approximately 20 neighbors testify against the proposal.  A few testify in favor. Planning Commission denies the rezoning request.

*The conditions he sought to negotiate with the City included ones that came up during community engagement, such as having the bike room located at the front of the building.  City code does not count bike rooms as an “active use” and therefore did not fit the City’s current requirements for the front of the building.

Why did the Planning Commission deny the rezoning request?

The recorded reasons:

1.       The proposed project would be injurious to the neighbor’s use of their property related to shadowing and the blocking of their garage.

Image of neighbor's garage showing tire marks in the snow where vehicles must drive on the developer's property to access the garage.
Image of neighbor’s garage showing tire marks in the snow where vehicles drive on the developer’s property to access the garage. Image: 635 Van Buren St NE project documents
View of the developer's property to the left and neighbor's property on the right. Property line is at the edge of the fence.  This also shows how the neighbor's access their garage by driving over the developer's property.
View of the developer’s property to the left and neighbor’s property on the right. Property line is at the edge of the fence. This also shows how the neighbors access their garage by driving over the developer’s property. Image: 635 Van Buren St NE project documents

2.       The proposed site plan review application is not consistent with Policy 47 Housing Quality, because they are asking for reductions of the quality of the build and the architecture.

The unstated reasons:

3.         There was notable discussion of an email exchange between a property owner in the area and the former ward 3 council member during the time when the 2040 Plan was being developed. The email exchange indicated some kind of commitment that the east side of Van Buren St. NE would not receive a Corridor 6 designation. (See links for: Council member Rainville’s comments; City staff’s comments; Commissioner Campbell’s comments; Council member Rainville’s second set of comments.)

4. Some commissioners reacted to the loudest oppositional voices to the development rather than evaluate whether the development adheres to the letter and spirit of current policy and the Minneapolis 2040 plan.

What’s wrong with the grounds for denial?

1.       The first is not grounds for a rezoning denial.  A rezoning is not to consider any particular project.  The Commission clearly has done so in this case because they specify “the proposed project.”  Not only that, there also is no evidence of injurious use due to shading because no shadow study was done as a matter of practice and no study was requested.  Justifying the claim “injurious use” of neighboring properties due to shadowing of building taller, denser buildings would set a dangerous backdoor attack on the 2040 Plan’s built form regulations.  Lastly, the claim of “blocking the garage” is truly in bad faith. The neighbor’s garage is angled perpendicularly to the alley.  Given the garage’s placement on their lot, it necessitates that the neighbors drive their cars on the developer’s property in order to access the garage. Said again, the neighbors have unwisely built a garage that requires the use of the adjacent property to park in the garage.  Even so, the developer reached out multiple times (see some of them in the project pdf linked below) in search of a solution.  He has paid for a turning radius study and proposed designs that will allow the neighbor to continue to drive on his property to access the garage.  Until the Commission meeting, the neighbor refused to engage, hired a lawyer, and instructed the lawyer to avoid engagement until after the Commission meeting.

Image of the developer's turning radius study to accommodate neighbor's garage access via the developer's property.
Image of the developer’s turning radius study to accommodate neighbor’s garage access via the developer’s property. Imagine developing an intentionally low carbon building with no parking to then have to accommodate carbon-emitting cars in your design to appease neighbors. If that isn’t a sign of a developer working in good-faith, I don’t know what is. Image: Precipitate Architecture

2.       This second is not grounds for denial for the simple reason that it does not apply to new construction. The title of Policy 47 is: Housing Quality: Ensure the preservation and maintenance of existing housing. This is trying to refer to the developer’s desire to use less carbon intensive metal siding rather than masonry in certain areas of the exterior. In any case, the developer has decided to comply with the condition to use masonry material, making any point on the topic of inferior materials moot.

3.       The email exchange provides no legal grounds for denial, and the Commission understood that. The fact of the matter is that this email exchange is irrelevant because the 2040 Plan assigns the property at Corridor 6 built form designation and the council member in question voted for the 2040 Plan, which took effect Jan. 1, 2020.  Furthermore, although the council member was in office for another two years, there is no recorded attempt to continue this initiative.  It’s disturbing that something as irrelevant as this was even considered and discussed.

4.       Facing angry public comment is no easy thing. At the end of the day however, the City, and all of those charged with carrying out its policies, must indeed follow those policies.

The Integrity of the 2040 Plan is at Risk

We have a housing crisis, a racial equity crisis and a climate crisis. To solve them, we need more housing, particularly near transit and especially projects that are built sustainably.  That’s the main thrust of the 2040 Plan. 

on Central Avenue as well as a number of other stops within a quarter mile radius.  Further the image shows close distances of other places of interest, such as parks, commercial space, and schools.
The property is very close to transit. The image shows a half block distance to the nearest current bus stop on Central Avenue as well as a number of other stops within a quarter mile radius. Furthermore, the image shows the close proximity of other places of interest, such as parks, commercial space, and schools. Image: Precipitate Architecture

This proposed 23-unit, transit accessible, passive house development on Van Buren is but one project, but it is a test against the strength of the 2040 Plan.  If the City denies the project, at best it opens the door for litigation and risks wasting precious public dollars. At worst, City denial of the project sets a bad precedent of dubious arguments against enacting our city’s legal comprehensive plan and risks further delay to addressing our pressing problems around housing, equity and sustainability.

The developer is appealing the Planning Commission’s decision, and the public is welcome to testify at the hearing at the Business, Inspections, Housing & Zoning (BIHZ) Committee on May 5th at 10am at City Hall.

More Info:

Planning Commission agenda from March 21, 2022

Full project details for 635 Van Buren St NE (PDF)

BIHZ Committee Agenda will be available on the City’s LIMs website the week of May 2, 2022.

Top image credit: City of Minneapolis

Katie Jones

About Katie Jones

Pronouns: she/her

Katie Jones is an engineer, a community builder, and a climate advocate. A Lowry Hill East (Wedge) resident serves on the Minneapolis' Capital Long Range Improvement Committee and recently served on the Governor’s Sustainable Transportation Advisory Committee. Her day job is in city energy efficiency policy, and she is currently building the Uptown Strawhouse behind her triplex (uptownstrawhouse.weebly.com).