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Teardown woes: from building clutter and excess water to affordability concerns

MinnPost photo by Marlys Harris
Rebuilds are scattered on practically every street of Linden Hills and to a lesser extent in other south Minneapolis neighborhoods.

I am no enemy of teardowns. In fact, they brought me great profit. Right on the cusp of the housing collapse, our next-door neighbor in Westport, Conn., sold her modest Colonial to a developer who extracted 70 percent of the trees and built himself a 6,000 square-foot five-bedroom, six-bath mega-mansion.

While the house was pretty hellacious, it made our previously fusty and unfashionable neighborhood more desirable. So when it came time to sell a few years later, we were easily able to unload our small Cape Cod at a fair price even though the market had tanked. (The new owner promptly tore down our house and put up a 4,600 square-foot number that would now fetch seven figures.)

On the other hand, I had mourned the loss of Westport’s quaint 1830s New England farmhouses — which were replaced with the bulky mansions favored by Wall Street money managers who had no compunction about violating setback, size and height restrictions. Their mantra seemed to be “So sue me.”

Consequently, I wasn’t sure what to expect when I drove through Minneapolis’ 13th Ward, where an interim moratorium on new wrecking permits is now in effect. The measure — initiated last month by the area’s newly elected council member, Linea Palmisano — was designed, she says, to give the city time to study the problems caused by a spate of teardowns that has taken over her community.

Wants fresh look at regs

Linea Palmisano
MinnPost file photo by Terry Gydesen
Linea Palmisano

In the lull, which could last as long as a year, she is hoping that CPED (the Community Planning and Economic Development department) will “take a fresh look at regulations.” The interim moratorium remains in place until it goes through the City Council approval process; the next step is a hearing on April 3 before the council’s planning and zoning committee.

I had no trouble finding the rebuilds. They are scattered on practically every street of Linden Hills and to a lesser extent in other south Minneapolis neighborhoods. “Activity increased 117 percent in 2013,” says Palmisano.

Not every rebuild is included in the official stats. Some developers take advantage of holes in the zoning code by moving ahead with “virtual teardowns” on remodeling permits.

What I saw when I toured the neighborhood didn’t outrage me. While not every new house was something a builder would want to feature in his or her portfolio, most fit on the lot, left some room between themselves and their neighbors on either side and were far from the monstrous eyesores I’d thought I would see. There was some construction debris in the yards, the occasional dumpster and porta-potty (ew!) on the street and groaning generators. But the travails of construction are temporary, and presumably the new owners would clean up the mess after the project was complete. Is the moratorium, I wondered, another case of NIMBY-ism?

Palmisano and Douglas Kress, director of development services, and honcho of the CPED study, maintain, however, that the nuisances are severe and not always temporary. The sump pumps going all day long, the cars and trucks out front, blockage of sidewalks and so on make life miserable for neighbors.

“This is not the [Vikings] stadium, but it is where people rest their heads and have their biggest investment,” says Palmisano.

Collateral damage

More significant, however, is some of the collateral damage that neighbors have experienced.

“The costs are paid by owners of neighboring houses,” says Kress. The area has a high water table, which means (I am told, because I know no more about water tables than about quantum mechanics) that the ground below is already wet. When houses become bigger, says Chris Meehan, interim regulatory program manager for the Minnehaha Creek Watershed District, there’s an increase in impervious surface area — more extensive roofs, for example. As a result, more water drains off into the sewer system, which can’t readily absorb the excess.

That. in turn, can create ponds in alleys and on neighboring properties. The watershed district does have regulations requiring builders to create rain gardens or install infiltration systems that will drain water more slowly and avoid pooling. If so, why is the flooding still occurring? Meehan speculates that the city’s aging sewer system might not have the capacity to handle all the runoff.

Some developers, Palmisano says, have created problems by digging foundations too deep. On a couple of occasions, the undermining causes a neighbor’s driveway or house to sink or tilt.

MinnPost photo by Marlys Harris
This house on Chowen did not conform to the plan filed with the application for a permit. Apparently, the windows do not meet the building code.

Of course, Minneapolis has regulations to prevent some of the problems. Developers are not supposed to obstruct the sidewalks; dumpsters and latrines belong in yards and not on the boulevards. But some builders have flouted the restrictions. The rebuild shown above logged seven violations, among them a leaking porta-potty in front (double ew!); a dumpster blocking the handicap parking spot used by the next-door neighbor; and water pooling in the alleys, creating skating rinks in the polar vortex weather. Also, the house did not conform to the plan filed with the application for a permit. Apparently, the windows do not meet the building code. The city, according to Kress, has issued a stop-work order; however, when I passed by, workers were busy on the site.

In another case, the builder raised the foundation so high that the house violated the floor area ratio. (That’s the amount of square footage allowed for a particular lot size.) While none of these infringements rank as major crimes, they certainly shouldn’t be happening.

Other concerns

All that stuff has to make you sympathetic to backers of the moratorium. But Palmisano has concerns that go beyond what she calls “construction management” and water drainage. While she says she’s not against the teardowns, she’s worried that the neighborhood could turn into an enclave for the 1 percent, or the 10 percent, anyway. The in-fill development is removing houses that schoolteachers and cops can afford. And, the elderly feel pushed out — and in fact may be pushed out as property taxes rise with the neighborhood’s fortunes.

“Age is just about the only kind of diversity the neighborhood has,” says Palmisano.

“Keeping houses small to be affordable” is a pipe dream, says Larry LaVercombe, a real-estate agent and chair of the Linden Hills Neighborhood Council’s zoning committee. If well-off people want to move to the area, they should be allowed to do so.

“There’s no way to limit the market parcel-by-parcel,” he says. Even if zoning regulations tried to discourage teardowns in the 13th Ward and to encourage them in, say, North Minneapolis, the likelihood is that families denied Linden Hills would instead choose to move to Minnetonka or Wayzata. That’s how the free market operates.

I would add that the elderly cycle out of neighborhoods. After the kids leave home, many aging homeowners tire of mowing the lawn and shoveling the walk (or paying someone to do it for them) and move to an apartment. Even if they don’t, they eventually — well, you know. The fact that the 13th Ward is a popular destination for families helps them by boosting the value of their houses and allowing them to walk away with tidy bundles if they sell.

The “massing” issue

Palmisano would also like the CPED study to address the issue of the “massing” — the height and size and clumping of the new dwellings. She’s a little vague about what she means, but it seems as though she wants streets to have a unified look, with doors in the same spots on houses, for example. LaVercombe says that people should have the right to build pretty much what they want, within the parameters of the zoning code.

But, he adds, “I think people have some right to sunlight.” Some of the new houses cast giant shadows over the neighbors’ backyards. “You should be able to grow a few tomatoes there.”

All in all, LaVercombe thinks that the moratorium is doing more good than bad.

“There’s already been a vast improvement in the short term,” he said. “Many sites have been cleaned up, and there are discussions about improving the city’s inspection and enforcement.”

And the water issues need attention. “I am for the process Palmisano has initiated. People may be angry in the short term,” he adds, “but a lot is being done.”

Comments (4)

  1. Submitted by jeff hansen on 03/28/2014 - 09:41 am.

    the other side

    I think its sad that your crying over all the tear downs. Its sad to see that the Mpls council would stop jobs. I would like to see health department go into this old house’s and see how much lead, apses, and redon gas is in this House’s. If you want to cry about something cry about snow plowing. They waited 12 to 24 hours after it snowed to plow. I pay a lot of money to work in Mpls I sure hope they give me a discount on my license next year since there taking work away from.

  2. Submitted by David Frenkel on 03/28/2014 - 10:12 am.

    Public health and safety

    Plenty was missed in this discussion like children in the neighborhood where parents have an added problem to worry about like inattentive construction workers and the mess they create outside of the construction site including asbestos that flies into the air when these older houses are knocked down. To my surprise few MN cities ban cutting down trees which among other things help prevent erosion. Erosion barriers (silt barriers) are mandated by the state yet nobody has the jurisdiction to impose fines for improper or nonresistant use of them which is a rampant problem. Clearly the moratorium in Minneapolis is a result of an industry that refuses to self regulate and with sky rocketing complaints the city had no choice but to do what they did to send a message that enough is enough. The size of the now houses is an issue but the bigger issue why can’t they be built without a heavy burden on the community.

  3. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 03/28/2014 - 10:30 am.

    Seems like a mixture

    I’d be very surprised if there wasn’t a significant amount of NIMBY sentiment in the neighborhood. Older neighborhoods, unless they’ve really deteriorated past the point of no return, are typically not especially friendly to new development in whatever form. Change is always at least a little bit disruptive, and not many people seek out aggravation on purpose. That said, however, it sounds like at least some of the teardowns are more trophies than homes. That shouldn’t surprise too many – it’s a function of the society’s current erosion into a plutocracy.

    That erosion, I’d suggest, is rather clearly reflected in the comments of Mr. LaVercombe. Real estate agents will always come down on the side of “bigger is better” because their incomes depend on it. I do think he’s correct in asserting that limiting size and price parcel-by-parcel is probably impractical – not to mention stepping rather harshly on property rights – but much of the rest of his commentary is real estate sophistry at best, condescending snobbery at worst (“I think people have some right to sunlight” might qualify for a “dubious distinction” award in that category). For one thing, there’s no “free market” in real estate, just as there’s no “free market” in the wider society. Government action (e.g., local zoning codes) or inaction (e.g., failure to enforce those zoning regulations) always has an influence on both supply and price. I’d guess, for an example that goes beyond local zoning regulations, that the market for oversized trophy homes would be significantly smaller if there were no tax deduction for home mortgage interest. Canadian home ownership rates are comparable to those in the U.S., and there is no such mortgage interest tax deduction in Canada.

    Beyond that, however, some of the issues seem related to the push, in recent years, for leaner government via lower taxes. That term, “leaner,” often translates in the real world to “cheaper,” and in a governmental context, the result is often, if not usually, fewer employees to do things like inspection and enforcement. These things are connected, and if I were a resident of the area, I’d be much less upset about the teardowns themselves than I would be about leaking porta-potties, undermined driveways, broken sidewalks, water table glitches, and other issues that builders and developers regard as not worth their time or attention (doing so might diminish their profit), but that make life miserable for the neighbors.

    Affordability concerns are genuine, but a tough nut to crack. Various methods that I’ve seen used to enforce affordability seem to work, in most cases, only in the short term. The long-term answer is, as most of the work force will attest, better pay. There’s some research I’ve seen over the past couple of years that lays out pretty clearly a case that residential real estate prices have far outstripped rises in wages, even factoring in the collapse of the housing bubble. Most homeowners would like to buy for a song and sell for a king’s ransom. THAT is what really determines “affordability.”

  4. Submitted by John Reinan on 03/28/2014 - 03:45 pm.

    We are moving beyond NIMBY and toward BANANA

    I live in Linden Hills. My position has always been simple: If people with money want to live in the city of Minneapolis and pay city taxes, we should encourage them.

    Most of the problems described here could be solved by better enforcement of existing regulations. Some of them need better ;ong-term action, but the moratorium is overreach.

    And as far as the complaints of dumpsters, dust, noise — please. These are temporary annoyances. You can’t build without them. Be happy that people want to invest in your neighborhood. Many cities as well as neighborhoods in this city would gladly make that tradeoff.

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