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‘Missing middle’ movement looks to resurrect the mid-rise apartment building in Minneapolis

MinnPost photo by Bill Lindeke
This four-plex on Pleasant Ave. in south Minneapolis is exemplary of middle-scale development during the '60s and '70s.

“It’s too big! Why can’t you do something smaller, something normal, something that fits with the character of the neighborhood?”

You go to enough urban-development discussions in Minneapolis and you hear that refrain a lot. People in older neighborhoods often recoil at the scale of proposed new development, casting shade on the height, scale, or massing (technical term) of building renderings.

These days, development in Minneapolis and St. Paul is typically limited to either (ever-growing) single-family homes or large apartment buildings. Those extremes leave a hole in the urban fabric where it’s almost impossible to build the kind of medium-scale buildings commonplace in the pre-war era. It’s a problem called “the missing middle,” and a small group of Minneapolis residents, developers and potential developers are in the early stages of tackling it.

The history of ‘the missing middle’ 

The term “missing middle” comes out of the new urbanist movement, and generally refers to any building type larger than a duplex but smaller than a midrise apartment building. (Generally a half-block four-story building is the cut-off.) The idea is important because one of new urbanism’s key principles is the “urban spectrum,” which calls for a gradual increase in density from a city’s edge to its center. 

Courtesy of Opticos Design, Inc.
The term “missing middle” was coined by Daniel Parolek of Opticos Design, a California developer.

“Right now we’re building — all cross the country — a lot of single-family houses, and a lot of large apartment buildings,” Peter Bajurny, a South Minneapolis resident and amateur urban geographer, told me. “If you look at the older neighborhoods, there’s a lot of stuff in between. But we’re not building that stuff any more.”

In Minneapolis and St. Paul’s urban neighborhoods, you can see all sorts of “missing middle” type buildings, but they generally come from one of two eras. The older date to the first decades of the 20th century, when many of the city’s three-story eight-unit brick apartments were constructed in places like Grand or Lyndale Avenues. The depression put an end to those types of buildings.

(I live in exactly one of these buildings, a six-unit three-story apartment building on St. Paul’s west side that is about a century old.)

The second wave of “missing middle” apartments date from the 1960s, and you can find these all through Uptown and the Wedge, unglamorous beige two- or three-story apartments — often with strange, historically inaccurate mansard-style roofs. (A friend of mine called these “mushroom buildings” after he lived in one for a year.) These utilitarian buildings often offer some of the most affordable rents in any neighborhood.

But since the 1970s, the vast majority of new construction has been either single-family homes or large projects of over 50 units. The lack of new “middle-scale” development is a bit baffling given how popular and affordable these types of buildings have proven to be.

The challenge of Minneapolis zoning

One of the key reasons for the lack of missing middle developments in Minneapolis is the city’s strict zoning code, dominated by R1 and R2 zoning that makes midscale building exceptional.

Courtesy of Peter Bajurny
R1 and R2 zoning is indicated in yellow on the map.

“When you have 70 percent of the land only doing one thing, and that one thing is a single-family house, it doesn’t leave a lot of options to do anything else,” Jim Kumon explained. “Minneapolis needs zoning classifications that help us with better levels of precision, that might allow for something beyond single-family houses to be built. It doesn’t have to be a huge building, but right now we have small and large, with nothing in between.”

Kumon runs the Minneapolis-based Incremental Development Alliance (IDA), a year-old nonprofit aimed at helping interested people become small-scale developers of middle-scale projects through better understanding of things like underwriting guidelines, architectural precedents, and zoning controls.

“People say they want smaller things that are more in context with the neighborhood, at a smaller scale,” Nick Magrino told me.

Magrino is one of Minneapolis’ 10 planning commissioners, and agrees that there’s a mismatch between the historic urban fabric and much of the city’s current zoning. He points to recent developments by developers Perkins Levin, of HGTV and Turkey 2 Go fame, as the exceptions that prove the rule.

“They’re pretty much the only people who are doing that small infill on any kind of scale,” Magrino told me. “They have several projects going on where they’re building four- or 10-unit buildings, and not a lot of people do that.”

Courtesy of PerkinsLevin
A proposed 10-unit missing middle development on Bryant Ave.

Catalyzing midrange development is one of reasons Magrino supported Minneapolis’ recent reduction of the city’s “minimum parking requirements,” which tries to address how underground garages have driven expenses for new constructions. The new rules get rid of these requirements for properties near the city’s main transit corridors.

“Now that we’ve passed parking reform we are probably going to see more small projects like this,” Magrino told me. “A 10-unit building with only two parking spots would not have been possible before, but in a high-frequency transit area we can do that. When you don’t have to build a basement for parking, it makes it easier financially.”

The other difficulty lies in the financing and the community process. Many lenders aren’t used to small-scale or mixed-use projects, and financing is often difficult through traditional channels. And on top of that, neighborhood opposition can be intense.

“There aren’t many good examples in Minneapolis, because no sane person would go through the brain damage of doing this,” Kumon told me, referring to the protracted community battles that have often emerged over development projects in South Minneapolis.

“If it doesn’t pan out financially, the risk you have to take to do a handful of units are the same risks to do a large building,” Kumon said. “But you don’t have the overhead to spread that risk out over time. In many cases you have to do a zoning change, and every one I’ve seen is difficult. It draws a lot of the ire, that has very little to do with the actual housing, and more to do with ideas about the neighborhood or developers. So I’m trying to change the nature of the conversation, with small developers who are rooted in their own neighborhoods.”

Photo by Julia Curran
The Motiv apartments on Colfax Ave., at the larger end of a “missing middle” development.

Population 500,000

When she was elected in 2014, one of Mayor Hodges’ big goals was to increase Minneapolis’ population to 500,000 people, past its 1950 peak, and subsequent decades of decline. There are a lot of sound environmental and fiscal reasons for the ambition, but achieving the development goals remains a challenge.

“It’s important to do small infill, where you don’t have to tear up half a block to build something,” Magrino told me. “It leaves more diversity of housing types. On a given block you’re maybe going to have a 1930s apartment building, and then a six-unit newer building, and a couple of single-family homes and duplexes. It encourages natural affordability on the blocks, instead of tearing up half a block.”

The ironic thing about Magrino’s vision that it’s not fantasy. Blocks like this already exist in places like Kumon’s South Minneapolis neighborhood, which he describes as being full of diversity, even if many of the buildings don’t conform with the existing zoning code.

“I live at 36th Street, and right to my north there are many multifamily buildings,” Kumon told me. “On my own block there’s a duplex and quadplex, and SFHs. There’s a place for this kind of development in the city, and it used to naturally allow us to stay in the same neighborhood through different stages of life.”

Kumon’s first official Minneapolis IDA seminar, to be held this summer, has already sold out. If Minneapolis is going to actually reach its ambitious growth goals, he’d better get to work on planning more of them.

Comments (65)

  1. Submitted by Matthew Steele on 04/04/2016 - 11:33 am.

    Zoning needs to change

    Right on with all this analysis, Bill. The biggest barrier is the fact that our use-based zoning map is so archaic, especially in the “quiet neighborhoods” where we are just starting to see pressure to start incremental intensification by replacing “missing teeth” with “missing middle” in our walkable nodes and transit corridors.

    We’ve made the natural evolution of cities illegal in many ways. Parking reform was a good first step, but more change is needed to make sure Minneapolis continues to grow into a city that welcomes everyone who wants to live here.

    Last year, I wrote an article about a vacant lot at 38th and Park due to a duplex fire, and how it’s zoned R1A. It’s possibly the quintessential case study for how ridiculously under-zoned our zoning code is.

    Currently, a few acquaintances are developing “3828” near the 38th Street Blue Line station. It looks like a great proposal, but they have to get a rezoning because of site assembly – even though the actual land uses on the site conform to the existing zoning code, except for when they are combined into a mid-size project.

    In my own neighborhood, there are three development sites I’ve been working on, but none have penciled out due to ridiculous zoning constraints. I was looking to buy a 40 foot corner lot on a bus line in my neighborhood, which already has two small storefronts and a giant unused and poorly-maintained parking lot out back. It’s the perfect place for a “Form Follows Function Fourplex” (the FHA-financed 4F) with two stories, four residential units, and a commercial storefront on the front. But it’s zoned R1A (residential), despite having been the site of a double storefront (and never a residence) for nearly a century. While you can retain non-conforming uses by right by jumping through a series of hoops, there’s no way to intensify that land use even a slight degree, even though other properties on the block are a standard residential-over-commercial two story.

    The Comprehensive Plan rewrite coming up is critical to the future of our city.

  2. Submitted by Anton Schieffer on 04/04/2016 - 12:37 pm.

    Infill development is what this city needs

    You made a good point about resistance to some of these smaller projects. It seems like there is neighborhood resistance to just about any project that isn’t a single-family house, so there’s no incentive to build anything on a reduced scale. If people oppose a 4-plex with the same ferocity as a 50-unit building, a developer isn’t going to bother with the smaller project.

    Plus, those walkups built during the 70s do provide affordable rents in my neighborhood. There’s a Chinese proverb about trees that could be applied to housing: “The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second best time is now.” We should’ve been building infill projects for the last 25 years and now that rents are skyrocketing, that truth is rather apparent. And in another 20 years the recent developments that have sprung up all over the city will lower the cost of living in the city.

    One cool thing about this city is the diversity of housing stock. If this city is going to grow, let’s focus on creating incentives for more infill development. Let’s start with areas that have great access to amenities like transit (and increase access to amenities in n’hoods that don’t have it!).

    • Submitted by Adam Miller on 04/04/2016 - 01:23 pm.

      There’s opposition to single family homes too

      Some of it I may even agree with when it comes to tear downs.

      But for most of the city, the zoning gives you the right to build a single family home (or so my understanding goes). It’s time to change it so you have the right to build the missing middle too.

  3. Submitted by Kenneth Peterson on 04/04/2016 - 02:06 pm.

    Not Buying The BS – And You Shouldn’t Either.

    The idea that what these developers are doing is somehow saving affordable housing stock is a fantasy brought on by the likes of media who have somehow been duped into believing that there are areas of the city that require more ugly, unoriginal boxes to house those who have no sense of history or concern for the well-being of the neighborhood, and the criminal acts of the folks at the City Planning office and a few select members of the City Council – one of whom heads the Planning Commission. The narrative that these units are “affordable” is a complete joke. The complex that went up at 24th and Colfax just a year ago has 42 units, and only 4 of them are occupied – one by the management company. This property sits on the site of two century-old houses that served as rooming houses for decades. Most of the residents lived there for as much as 30 years and were FAR from being considered “transient” properties. The rent was extremely affordable and served the purposes of the residents for years, numbering about 20 in total. The rent at the current property begins at $1545/month for a 600 square foot apartment. The property at 2008 Bryant Avenue South has 3-4 apartments and is mostly structurally sound (what is not can be fixed) and goes for $800/month. What is proposed is a 10-unit box with long, thin apartments with very little room. The footprint is larger than the current one and will eliminate what little grass currently existing. The property on 28th and Girard also eliminated two houses and replaced it with a tall, out of place, dorky looking building which exceeds zoning height. There are properties between 28th and the Greenway which are silently being bought up by the likes of Perkins Levins (AKA “The Turkeys”) only to be replaced by similar ugly, boxy buildings. The property at 2427 Lyndale Avenue South – a BEAUTIFUL building with no structural problems (as far as I recall) was recently razed after the owner passed away and developers snatched it up – to face a similar fate as the one at 28th and Girard. In each of these cases, unoriginal and unnecessary buildings are replacing the beautiful, historic homes that have given the neighborhood its character for well over 100 years; I say “unnecessary” because when I see a new development sit 96% vacant for well over a year I have a difficult time believing that it somehow serves a purpose that is somehow “benefitting” the neighborhood. I also am very suspicious of a developer/owner who sits on a property with no revenue being generated and somehow does not realize that they could cut their losses by simply lowering the asking price. The only purpose it DOES serve is to raise property taxes in the neighborhood which, in turn, also raises the rent prices; even though a building may be vacant the owners are still responsible for taxes. In the past year the rent on a unit that I am very familiar with has risen from $740 to $950 although nothing other than these developments has changed. The effect this is having is NOT providing “affordable housing” – something that was promised in the proposal and ALSO a main theme in CM Lisa Bender’s campaign (Bender is the Chair of the planning commission). What it IS accomplishing is pricing lifelong residents out of the neighborhood, destroying the character of the neighborhood, and creating a vacuum of space that could otherwise be used to house those who are ultimately being displaced. If the argument to be made is development in an area close to public transportation I could make an excellent argument for development in such an area that has literally dozens of vacant lots and properties and does not necessitate destroying a neighborhood. It would also be far less expensive to develop because a wrecking crew would not be needed. But there are problems with that (if they could be referred to as “problems”) – those properties are in North Minneapolis, and they are NOT in Lisa Bender’s neighborhood, and they do not fit the narrative that all this destruction is somehow “good for our City”. I smell a rat – or a few – and their offices are in City Hall.

    • Submitted by Matthew Steele on 04/04/2016 - 02:40 pm.

      You’ve uncovered the secretive plot by developers to build expensive new holdings that lose them money. Was that in the Panama Papers leak?

      Also, since you claim (twice!) that CM Bender is the chair of the Planning Commission, I am inclined to point out that the Planning Commission has a president (not a chairperson) and that president is Matt Brown (not Lisa Bender).

      • Submitted by Duane Raymond on 04/04/2016 - 03:05 pm.

        Planning Commission. Jeez. That’s just silly.

        LB chairs the Zoning & Planning committee.

        And how could a compromised Alderwoman possibly abuse influence there?

      • Submitted by Kenneth Peterson on 04/04/2016 - 03:07 pm.

        My mistake on the Planning Commission – I stand corrected.

        Also – I never said anything regarding any intentional “plot” to lose money. What I DID say (or, rather, imply) was that the property in question has lost hundreds of thousands of dollars in potential revenue by keeping the asking rate so high. I question the business practices of someone who doesn’t see a solution to this situation, and also that they apparently weren’t too concerned about whether or not there was actually a MARKET for these monstrosities prior to proposing to tear down historic property and displace a couple dozen long-term tenants. The fact that four units are presently occupied (I would estimate about 8 people), this would mean that the net result, here, is about 12 less people on that property paying rent than before the houses were destroyed. Something is clearly not adding up, regardless of how you look at it.

    • Submitted by Sam Newberg on 04/11/2016 - 01:23 pm.

      Motiv Opened April 1

      It is fair to point out that Motiv, the 24th and Colfax project, just opened for occupancy on April 1. Nobody should expect many of its units to be occupied yet. I’m aware they have signed leases for about one-third of the units, which is a strong result considering the timeline.

  4. Submitted by Duane Raymond on 04/04/2016 - 02:30 pm.

    Oh, it’s a MOVEMENT.

    Here I was thinking it was a handful of cynical, opportunistic insiders (including Perkins/Levin) who contributed well over half of our ward representative’s 2015 itemized campaign donations… more than half of those donors giving to nobody BUT our ward rep.

    Thank you, minnpost, for framing that in the proper context for everyone.

    • Submitted by Matthew Steele on 04/04/2016 - 03:05 pm.

      But, math

      Per WedgeLive’s excellent reporting, I’m-assuming-your-ward’s Council Member raised $23,343.43 in 2015.

      Since there’s a maximum contribution limit in state law, it is mathematically impossible that “a handful of insiders” contributed “well over half” of the campaign contributions.

      But then when one actually opens the itemized campaign contributions, there is definitive evidence that no such handful of Turkeys could indeed contribute anywhere close to half of the $8837.17 in itemized contributions. For counting purposes, we use GAAP-standard five-fingers-per-handful, though Turkeys are reported to have four toes and no fingers. This also shows that over 62% of 2015 contributions were below the reporting threshold. These were donations from small-time turkeys, which in turkey lingo are known as Jakes and Jennys.

    • Submitted by Bill Lindeke on 04/04/2016 - 03:27 pm.


      Well, I included a few links to architecture, development, and urban design networks like the Congress for the New Urbanism and the Incremental Development Alliance. To the extent that folks engaged in this work are talking to each other, learning from each other, and trying to have conversations with “the public” in some sense, I’d define it as a movement.

      Actual developers like Perkins/Levin prefer staying outside of the headlines, in my experience. Many of these developers feel like they are being harassed, and for good reason, because the public process around infill can be intense and heated.

  5. Submitted by Adam Miller on 04/04/2016 - 02:59 pm.

    True evil villany

    Is people wanting to build things in your city/neighborhood.

  6. Submitted by Connie Sullivan on 04/04/2016 - 03:29 pm.

    I live in quivering expectation of a shining new era of two-and-a-half-story walkups in Minneapolis, like those that proliferated in the most recent time of pro-density hysteria in our Planning Department (now CPED): the late 1950s and 1960s. The hysteria is all around us, as in this pro-density piece.

    Fast and cheap to build, with modest rents, these mid-sized mid-century boxes were spread all over the city, mid-block and on corners and one next to the other, replacing elegant homes that were left vacant and in decline by the death of a long-time remaining family member (a good historical look at Minneapolis shows some fascinating generational lives of our housing, most of it sad because it led to demolitions).

    Those of us who know of the planning philosophy that led to those desecrations–not all mid-century pro-density and “urban renewal” desecrations were the Metropolitan Building, the much-lamented symbol–are very wary of the new planning mantra of density, which has all Small Area Plans looking alike, with tiered redevelopment. So boring!

    Also, before 1964 there really wasn’t any enforcement of a zoning code in Minneapolis, so you could (and people did) build this or that next to any old thing. Lots of stuff was grandfathered in–why you have little store-fronts in an R1A district, for example. Much of Minneapolis was built like Topsy: it just grew. No rules except in the fanciest parts.

    And, unless a developer is a non-profit, tying pro-density fervor to affordable rents is pretty much unpersuasive.

    • Submitted by Matthew Steele on 04/04/2016 - 03:55 pm.

      “Much of Minneapolis was built like Topsy: it just grew.”

      Precisely. We built something great before use-based zoning was even allowed (Euclid v. Ohio) or before our use-based zoning mania hit full steam in the post-war era. And now it would be illegal to build the neighborhoods we love if we had to start from scratch. Time for our outdated comp plan to go.

    • Submitted by Adam Miller on 04/04/2016 - 04:33 pm.

      Right re zoning

      We didn’t used to micro-manage land use, and we got active, vibrant, mixed cities. Let’s do that again.

      • Submitted by Duane Raymond on 04/04/2016 - 04:49 pm.

        Yes! The market will govern itself!

        That’s always best.

        • Submitted by Joseph Totten on 04/05/2016 - 11:39 am.

          Limited Deregulation is Not a Far Off Dream

          Why not have corner lots zoned for neighborhood retail, with another floor allowed for offices or apartments? Closed by 9:00, coffeehouses, daycares, etc? Why not allow any lot with an area more than 1.5 of the normal be a 5 unit apartment? This isn’t entirely free-market, but it also won’t ruin the surrounding area because these are the buildings people tend to love in their area. Can we allow zoning to reflect that instead of requiring a conditional use permit, and variance, and rezoning all at once?

          • Submitted by Rachel Kahler on 04/05/2016 - 01:06 pm.


            I love my neighborhood. I really do. I live in a very diverse, mid-upper class, newish development in a suburb. It’s got lovely trails and ponds. It’s got newer, single family homes. It’s very nice. I would LOVE a locally owned coffee shop or small grocery store within walking distance. It would be an even better idea in more densely populated areas.

            To Constance’s point, though, I understand the sadness of replacing beautiful old historical homes with ugly buildings. It didn’t have to happen that way–many of those older homes could have been converted. Or, at the very least, the buildings that replaced them could have been more attractive. Quite frankly, if one is going to be convinced that the missing middle should return, don’t remind us of those hideous buildings of times past. And, for God’s sake, don’t repeat that mistake. If you want to put a 4-plex or 6 unit building in a historical neighborhood, don’t even bother starting with aluminum and glass. Start with repurposed brick and tile. Yeah, it adds cost to fit into an established neighborhood, but it’s either that or nothing at all.

            Looking forward, it’s not realistic to believe that the ‘burbs are going away. But, if planners were smart (and they often aren’t), they’d plan neighborhood diversity and usability into the growth plans of growing suburbs. Put grocery stores and daytime use businesses (coffee houses, cafes) near the entrances of new developments. It would put community needs within walking distance without increasing traffic. Include moderate duplexes and 4-plexes, along with town homes. Our neighborhood at least included single level town homes (which appear to be mostly housing retirees), but a walk to the grocery store (even a new one scheduled to be built relatively nearby) requires a bit of a hike. Forget coffee or lunch out.

            • Submitted by Alex Cecchini on 04/05/2016 - 02:08 pm.

              I think

              We should be careful in ascribing aesthetic preferences to design standards for new buildings. There’s a cycle of preference that ebbs and flows over time. There was a time when Victorian homes, not even 20-30 years old, were panned by architecture critics for being gaudy. Wealthy people who lived in them fled to newer (urban) subdivisions for trendier designs. There may come a time when the 50s/60s walkups will be more appreciated than they are now, even if that’s hard to believe. And, if it never happens, is the requirement of certain materials, which comes with a cost (as you note) worth it? There’s a tension between providing affordable housing, using “quality” exterior materials, with “reasonable” unit sizes, paying living wages for building construction and management, etc. This isn’t the 1910s where cheap immigrant labor without paid benefits and relatively unregulated businesses providing timber and brick could put up cheap housing.

              Besides, exterior charm is only part of the issue in opposition to new housing. Massing, height, and parking (among other concerns) are all discussed as reasons people typically oppose development. I’d say there are plenty of visually appealing single family homes being built in place of older, smaller single family homes across SW Minneapolis. Yet neighbors still take issue with them because they don’t fit in with neighborhood character or scale. It’s hard to imagine a replica 3.5 story, single-lot apartment building with a gorgeous brick exterior sailing through neighborhood meetings without opposition, even if it looked almost identical to structures around it (for example, see the condo proposal for 1174 Grand Ave in St Paul rejected because of its enormous scale despite being maybe 5% bigger than apartment/condo buildings on either side of it).

              I agree with you that suburbs, as well as our core cities, would do well to alleviate restrictions against daily commercial uses. My take is that should be extended into most neighborhoods. We should ask ourselves why places like Germany and Japan, who have “general urban residential” as the base zoning district allowing single family homes and small neighborhood-serving commercial uses, are vastly different than us. Beyond that, why do they have a much higher percent of land that allows medium-sized apartments, directly adjacent to detached homes. Why do their neighborhoods not fail, lose value, etc? What are the outcomes in terms of small business ownership, mixing of incomes and races, educational outcomes, culture, etc? What about walk/bike/transit mode shares? I could go on. We cling on to values and regulations in this country, often based on gut instinct rather than what research and precedent tells us otherwise.

              • Submitted by Rachel Kahler on 04/06/2016 - 08:33 am.

                Don’t get me wrong

                I’m well aware of the rent squeeze. But, as mentioned by Mr. Schieffer above, the best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second best time is now. Yeah, so there’s some cost up front, and it’s likely to result in the need to recover some of those costs in rent. Right now, anyway. But, new buildings are almost always going to have higher rents than old buildings. Some day, though, those new buildings will be old buildings. Don’t tell me that these new buildings are built to be affordable now, either. That new Motiv building–the one that’s mostly empty–has sub 700 sq ft apartments priced at $1400+!! Frankly, for that price, I expect quite a lot more than just wood floors and a bus line. Still, there are people who want that, and importantly, can afford it. But, in 20 years, it won’t be hip and trendy to have dark wood floors with stark white counter tops, and the market will have to adjust to that reality. Other new buildings will be built with outrageous rents and trendy interiors…so long as they don’t face opposition from neighbors. So, it seems to make sense to build hip and trendy in hip and trendy areas, while established neighborhoods need some sort of design concessions.

            • Submitted by Adam Miller on 04/05/2016 - 04:35 pm.

              Here’s the problem

              “Ugly” vs. “beautiful” is not a useful frame. It’s obviously subjective and next to impossible to enforce.

              And that’s before we get to defining “historical neighborhood.”

              We actually have processes, procedures and guidelines for other aesthetics and historical preservation. The things that people complain are new and ugly were built in compliance with them.

              • Submitted by Rachel Kahler on 04/06/2016 - 08:19 am.

                Who said anything about enforcing? It’s not a law that design submissions be tasteful or fit into a neighborhood (although I’m aware that some cities actually do require “fit”, I’m not talking about making laws). But if you want neighborhood approval, you might keep these in mind. If you want to put any of the examples shown in this article into my neighborhood, I would definitely oppose. Put something that looks like it belongs, something that’s in the character of the neighborhood, and I’ll support it. Processes and procedures can’t capture that.

    • Submitted by Anton Schieffer on 04/04/2016 - 04:39 pm.

      I agree with some of this

      The current zoning code is treated very strictly, especially compared with older eras. Because of this, variances are required to build just about anything innovative or architecturally interesting. And of course the zoning has not kept pace with the growth of our city.

      But more units does mean more affordable rents in the long run. Areas that build more units have lower rates of rent increases. My rent has gone up for 4 straight years because people want to move to the city, and they’re willing to live in my rundown brownstone building to do that. There aren’t new developments nearby, just more people competing for the same amount of places to live.

    • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 04/05/2016 - 01:37 pm.

      “Not in my neighborhood!”

      “Fast and cheap to build, with modest rents, these mid-sized mid-century boxes were spread all over the city, mid-block and on corners and one next to the other, replacing elegant homes that were left vacant and in decline by the death of a long-time remaining family member (a good historical look at Minneapolis shows some fascinating generational lives of our housing, most of it sad because it led to demolitions).” You’ve packed a lot into one sentence.

      “Fast and cheap to build.” I’m no expert, but most of the smaller buildings I see are not exactly tumbling down. They could use some updating, but they hardly seem like evidence of blight.

      “[W]ith modest rents.” Thus attracting people of modest means? I’m sure THAT couldn’t be the issue.

      “[T]hese mid-sized mid-century boxes were spread all over the city, mid-block and on corners and one next to the other.” Yes, it’s called density. It’s a way of keeping housing stock affordable for more people. That is often considered a good thing, unless we’re worried about those of modest means which of course we’re not, not really.

      “[R]eplacing elegant homes . . .” etc. It may come as a surprise, but not all old homes were “elegant.” I will also utter the heresy that not all old buildings are worth saving. It may be uneconomical to save and reuse them, or it may just be pointless to save a nondescript, undistinguished building when better use of land could be made by a newer building.

      “And, unless a developer is a non-profit, tying pro-density fervor to affordable rents is pretty much unpersuasive.” I’m not usually a believer in the sacred wisdom of the market, but here I think it might come into play. Are developers really going to rush to build more luxury housing when the existing stock cannot be filled up? Or are they going to adjust their vision to meet reality?

  7. Submitted by Steven Hammond on 04/05/2016 - 10:30 am.

    Eminent Domain

    Why can’t these single family houses be eminent domained? They don’t belong in these areas anymore. These people need to just get over it.

  8. Submitted by Duane Raymond on 04/05/2016 - 10:42 am.

    Urbanist rancor continues to smack of ageism & class-ism.

    This is surfacing ever more openly with growing resentment of the baby boomers and the wealth they’ve accumulated. Make no mistake about it, when the usual gang of comment trolls sneers about “longtime residents” it’s code for “old people.”

    • Submitted by Joseph Totten on 04/05/2016 - 11:35 am.

      Just as “Transients” and “Renters” are code words for POC

      Make no mistake, any attempt to integrate neighborhoods, to move poorer children (or those who chose to not own for any number of reasons) away from apartment buildings on polluted, dangerous thoroughfares, with high speeds and lots of traffic is met with the chorus of “Transients”, “Non-Tax Paying”, “Apathetic”, “Disruptive” and “Not Sharing Our Values”. Why should we make renters (who are more likely to be young, lower income, and/or people of color) live in what are considered dangerous neighborhoods, or on the main drags of the city (or be like Cedar-Riverside or Saint Paul’s Skyline Tower, right on the actual freeways)? Can we not possibly create a city where they could choose a cheaper option in the interior of a neighborhood? One with a yard (granted, shared with a few other families), or a garage (maybe only one stall for all the kids’ bikes and the car)? Why should renters either have to live in new, mid-rise, “luxury” units or nothing? Why shouldn’t we allow small infill development?

      You’re right in a sense, the class-ism of this discussion is outrageous. That the only thing that matters to homeowners is a rising property values, and exclusion of anyone who cannot afford to BUY.

      • Submitted by Steven Hammond on 04/05/2016 - 01:47 pm.

        Utter fallacy.

        However well that narrative suits your ‘selfish homeowner’ tar strokes, it’s not nearly that simple.
        Homeowners’ properties are going to rise however this shakes out.

        • Submitted by Alex Cecchini on 04/05/2016 - 02:27 pm.

          Let’s put on hold

          class or age discussions. I’d like to explore the notion that people who can’t afford to or don’t want to buy and maintain a home should be forced to live in prescribed sections of town. As Joseph notes, places allowing apartment or condo buildings are often along “transit corridors,” which happen to be busy, loud, and dangerous streets. The very reasons people enjoy living on quiet residential streets – low traffic, street trees, quiet, safer, etc – are things people who want to rent (small or large units) desire as well.

          This article goes into some great reasons that smaller-scale infill is good for lower-cost housing. Namely, you can avoid costly underground or structured parking. It doesn’t talk about how the location matters. Assembling more than one or two lots for redevelopment can be very difficult – it takes time and resources that small builders don’t have. And, when you consider the added difficulty/cost of acquiring parcels along commercial streets (commercial properties cost more and may have much longer leases to buy out), it’s no wonder we really only see large, 6-story apartments targeting the upper end of the market. No one is saying that a smaller-scale infill building in neighborhood interiors will automatically be affordable on opening day to families making 80% AMI. But it’s far more likely they can meet lower rent targets given easier and cheaper construction costs. And they provide housing supply that will be affordable in 30+ years (if you doubt me, look around at all the 50s/60s walkups that haven’t been renovated!).

          So, is there a moral reason that 3+ story buildings shouldn’t be allowed on side streets?

          • Submitted by Dan Berg on 04/06/2016 - 07:31 am.

            Chicken meet egg

            Higher density housing needs to be located along transit corridors as a physical reality. Look at the parts of town where the mid-rise is most common such as Uptown or Steven’s. More people means more traffic (not just cars but buses, bikes and pedestrians as well) which create busier streets. This is compounded by the fact that these neighborhoods have a mix of commercial properties which increase traffic in to and out of the neighborhoods. Single family neighborhoods are quiet precisely because they are single family neighborhoods with lower density and fewer commercial establishments. It is possible to rent in these neighborhoods as well so it isn’t a rent vs own issue.

            Mid-rises are also be more expensive to build per unit than the larger buildings which are more commonly seen these days. The cost of the land can be divided across more units and contractors and sub-contractors like bigger jobs so are willing to take lower margins for the work. Smaller jobs are a pain because you still need to mobilize all of the various trades, coordinate drawings, permits and schedules but don’t get as much out of the effort. One of the reasons the smaller apartment buildings built in the 50s/60s/70s are less expensive to rent now is that they were built poorly and aren’t worth maintaining because rents need to be low for anybody to live in them. Also many of the neighborhoods in which they were built have lower desirability because of their existence.

            Also, if you want to change zoning to build more high cost per unit buildings in existing single-family neighborhoods you should be prepared to compensate the near by residents. Putting a 3-story zero lot line building right next to a 1.5 story bungalow is going to significantly reduce the value of that neighboring home. Unless the new building includes at least 1.5 parking spots per unit it will also reduce the value of most homes on the block due to more parking issues and higher traffic levels. The other issues is since it isn’t efficient to have a lot of transit in lower density neighborhoods residence who don’t have cars face significant limitations in their mobility.

            So while there is no moral reason side streets can’t have three story apartment buildings there are a lot of practical economic and physical reasons.

            • Submitted by Alex Cecchini on 04/06/2016 - 09:43 am.


              Travel to any big city across the world (including cities in the US) and take a walk on non-arterial streets with 3-6 (or higher!) story buildings. They are quiet and pleasant. The presence of commercial establishments is one component, but far more than that is the nature through-streets having high vehicle traffic. Come stand at 35th and Dupont in my neighborhood, with a small corner store in one of the apartment buildings on the corner, and tell me “density = noise/less desirable). And yes, it’s possible to rent single family homes or duplexes in neighborhood interiors. But by limiting the scale of buildings to that size, you limit the number of people who might want to live on a quiet side-street, or simply in that neighborhood in the first place.

              Small-scale infill buildings are *not* more expensive to build per unit than mid-rise buildings with underground or structured parking, elevators, etc. I laid out a bunch of reasons why, but you can go ahead and compare the construction costs for the 42-unit Motiv apartment building vs other 100+ unit 6-stick buildings going up in Minneapolis. Obviously, this depends very highly on lot price, unit size, building layout/amenities, but in general, smaller-scale infill is far more flexible on construction cost. And, *even if* it were true that small-scale is more expensive per unit than larger-scale stuff, why is that a reason to block it? Is there no way to conceive that people would be willing to pay more per sqft for some type of housing vs another if the location was right? People pay $500k for homes in some Minneapolis neighborhoods that are smaller, with fewer modern amenities, smaller lots, and detached garages when the same money could get them much more in a suburb.

              No, new dense buildings do not lower nearby property values. I wrote a post on streets dot mn citing multiple academic studies, you should check it out. The general point is that people over-estimate direct negative impacts from new development without taking into account positive externalities (things like new people supporting additional nearby shopping or dining options, more transit service, adding to the tax base etc). Even when property values decline for directly neighboring properties, the percentage is so small to be basically meaningless over a typical home ownership term.

              The reasons society just accepts for blocking even modest-sized buildings are either flat-out false or highly overblown.

              • Submitted by Dan Berg on 04/06/2016 - 01:39 pm.

                Not true

                These things are relative but if you add density you will increase traffic, hard to avoid that. A side street with a couple or few small apartment buildings is going to be much less quiet and pleasant than one with only single family units. Look at Uptown and Stevens relative most of Linen Hills or Highland Park. I have lived in just about every type of neighborhood from very large dense urban cities, to mid-rise like your neighborhood to suburbs and rural areas. I have liked each and selected it based on what I wanted at the time. None are “unpleasant” but their is a defiant difference in traffic between them and reason that some people don’t want their single family street to have a new apartment change the dynamic. They selected their home for a reason and it might not be aligned with the desires of those who want to change it for their own feeling of fulfillment.

                I have a decent amount of experience on commercial construction projects and there is very little chance that a mid rise is going to be less expensive per unit than a larger building. Many of the mid-rise buildings are basically stick built on single story a concrete plinth so costs for the majority of the building would be the same and the additional costs of elevators and other requirements for the increased height are spread across 42 units and then offset by the fact the cost of the land is spread across more units. Costs for the amenities are typically inconsequential percentage wise while parking spaces are often more valuable per square foot than living space so that investment will pay for itself fairly quickly.

                I never stated that mid-rise should be blocked in places where it is currently allowed by zoning. Just that if the zoning changes there should be a path for compensating those who are negatively impacted. While you might be alright with the “overall” impact the reality is that people nearby will be the ones baring the costs, not you. That “the percentage is so small to be basically meaningless over a typical home ownership term” makes a lot of assumptions and doesn’t allow for real world impacts on people. Not everybody owns a home for some predetermined amount of time or finds value in their home with a predetermined set of criteria. Individuals shouldn’t be on the hook for the risks involved when somebody with an urban planning idea wants to test a theory. The fact that the cities tax base goes up a bit is of little consolation to the home owner who loses real value in their property.

                I think there would be far less push back if planners would be honest and acknowledge the realities and be willing to pay the complete costs of their decisions. Typically what happens though is a there is too much deflection to generalities and proselytizing about a “vision” for the community. All well and good but when the effect of the change is concentrated on specific property owners these utopian descriptions aimed at a larger audience don’t carry much weight.

                • Submitted by Joseph Totten on 04/06/2016 - 02:24 pm.

                  You lost me…

                  Can we define what the “Costs” are? Alex seems to be making a financial argument (and is supported by a lot of research to that effect). You seem to be making more of a personal, emotional argument (not wrong). The effects on homeowners might be lessened light, lessened privacy, or “ugly” aesthetics (as is being debated below), but these rarely affect the prices you’re able to get for your property/house. Therefore “real costs” and “costs” are confusing terms, which allow us to talk past each other more than with each other. Unless you were trying to argue that our property value would be destroyed, in which case, previous experience and studies do not support that, but every situation is unique.

                  • Submitted by Dan Berg on 04/06/2016 - 06:40 pm.

                    Good point of clarification

                    Alex is assigning financial costs/benefits over an entire city. My concern is that under the current system those costs are born by the property owners immediately adjacent. The studies actually seem to show that those immediately adjacent to properties rezoned for higher use do see declines in value while the overall tax base may increase. Beyond the pure math of it there is an even more micro concern. The value a property has to an individual is very directly related to aesthetics and other aspects which were based on the zoning at the time of purchase. If city planners want to change that zoning they need to deal with that issue for all effected individuals and not just fall back on general assumptions and their idea of the “greater good”.

                    Maybe an example will allow me to be more clear. If you had purchased a home in Minneapolis and the city changed the zoning so that a 3 story parking ramp could be built next to you it would be reasonable to be concerned. Even if city planners were able to show you that it would allow the city to increase tax revenue and that as a whole the property values in the neighborhood would likely increase. You paid $350k(or whatever) for the house because that is what it was worth to you under the zoning at the time, which a single family home texted door. Even if the home’s market value to increase (not likely being so close) you can only take advantage of that value increase if you sell the home. If you had no plans to sell the home then that forces you to either accept having real value taken from you, because of your personal view of the properties value, or monetary value taken because you need to move and accept the costs involved in that move (4-10% in realtor fees, moving expenses, job change, etc.).

                    If a landlord at a mall were to change the terms of a lease they would need to compensate individual tenants according to the costs the tenants incur. With zoning governments enter in to a contract of sorts with property owners and if they change the terms they need to compensate each property owner on their own merits and terms. A landlord couldn’t tell all of his tenants that the changes are simply for the best and that it is for the good of the “greater mall” as a way of excusing themselves from providing compensation. Those with the power to make these changes need to be equally responsible for their impacts on all individuals. Not simply find justification based on the measures they find to be important for the group as a whole.

                    • Submitted by Joseph Totten on 04/06/2016 - 08:01 pm.

                      Alex Has Written a Lot on This Actually…


                      Really, negative effects are usually limited. Not to say it’s cannot happen, but it’s not really typical in financial costs.

                      Your mall analogy is confusing, zoning is like the mall saying “We’re only having retail on this side of the mall” and then renting to a restaurant. Unless you have it in writing that NEVER will a storefront be vacant or a restaurant, then the mall can do whatever it wants. Same with zoning, it’s being used as a guarantee that nothing will ever change, or if it does, that it will be for less dense development. This is not a signed contract, easily changeable and I pity anyone who relies on it to exclude the next zone up (duplex to 5 unit apartment instead of a single family home). Using it to stop a 6 floor, full block development is different than using it to stop your elderly neighbor from subdividing her house and adding on to allow a live in caretaker, or the 5 unit building that burned down from rebuilding. That’s the big thing here, why is a duplex, a triplex, or even a small apartment building a big deal? (I don’t think Colfax is really as ‘middle’ as the article presents it to be, but feel free to use it if you’d like.)

                    • Submitted by Dan Berg on 04/07/2016 - 07:37 am.

                      The point remains

                      My point remains and the article by Alex actually reinforces it. The article only states that aggregate market value is often unaffected and is clear about the fact that properties very near larger new-builds can see a negative impact on their market value. Planners can’t ignore the negative impact on real individuals in favor of broad theories or the general community. If they want to make changes that have negative impacts on anybody they need to plan on compensation to those individuals. If the overall gains in tax revenue are greater than the costs of the compensation than the changes might make sense.

                      What the article, and most planners, fail to understand is that “market value” is meaningless until you sell your property. If somebody purchase a single family home in an area zoned only for that purpose they likely did so in part because of the existing character of the neighborhood and how it is zoned. While changing that character might not have a negative impact on the home’s market value it might make it much less valuable to the actual owner. The owner might now prefer a different home that does not have apartments on the same block or commercial tenants and the crime that comes with them. The fact that her $350k home is still worth $350k to someone else doesn’t matter if it is no longer worth that to her. Unless she sells it and moves which comes with significant costs not dealt with by planners. Not to mention other costs which might be associated with higher density such as increased insurance rates. Planners tend to ignore how these changes affect individuals during any changes in favor of larger measurements of the effect post-change.

                      Alex’s article shows multiple occurrences where zoning clearly states that it is set up to protect single family neighborhoods. Alex seems to argue that this is a misplaced goal because the aggregate market values of these neighborhoods won’t be effected by mid-rise buildings. The fact is zoning was put in place not just to allow planners to have a tool to manipulate land use according to current fashion but to ensure property owners a certain stability. It allows planning not just for cities but the real individuals who own the property and live in those cities. When the city sets out zoning in order for builders, developers and property owners to abide they are most certainly encouraging people to use it to plan their investments. Those who want to play with zoning can’t have it both ways, they can’t claim that people should use it to guide their long investments but then claim that they should be able to change it at will without shouldering any responsibility. It is the type of attitude that makes people distrustful and cynical about city government and city planners.

                    • Submitted by Joseph Totten on 04/07/2016 - 11:23 am.

                      How Much Compensation?

                      If the market rate doesn’t change, then the compensation should be temporary, to be repaid when the house is sold (as most typically are, eventually).

                      We all do things daily that negatively affect others, even if illegal, sometimes my garbage can lid doesn’t close, which neighbors should I pay for this? How do we determine that these actions don’t affect values enough, how do we compensate the emotional value you describe? Is it just on the owner’s words?

                    • Submitted by Dan Berg on 04/07/2016 - 01:27 pm.

                      An option

                      Most of the smaller trivial items like garbage can lids might be inconveniences but obviously there is a threshold where it does warrant some sort of compensation. There is currently a path for this type of thing through the courts. There is a threshold of getting involved with the courts that most people find fairly high and this keeps most trivial items from being an issue.

                      Changing zoning isn’t a “small thing” and is undertaking purposefully and with forethought by city/regional officials who are supposed to be serving individual property owners equally. They should’t be allowed to assign the costs for desired changes in zoning more heavily on certain individuals simply because of their address. Those costs need to be born by the entity that the changes are designed to bennefit, that of the city as a whole.

                      An option for compensating those negatively effected by zoning is to follow a model similar to that used for eminent domain. Offer to buy neighboring properties, negotiating a price with the owners. Then once they get to an agreed upon price and take possession instead of tearing them down for a new use resell them. If the planners are willing to stand by their theory that the value doesn’t go down it shouldn’t be much of a problem.

                      Change has real costs, even if for the better. Basically this is just about developing integrated checks and balances on the process. The current system is too arbitrary and open to manipulation by special interests or activists which want to implement their vision and don’t currently need to worry about how it effects individual property owners.

                    • Submitted by Adam Miller on 04/07/2016 - 10:08 am.

                      Zoning is not a contract

                      That’s not at all a helpful frame.

                      Nor is the example of a parking ramp next to your house a useful one. That would be bad for the value of your house because it’s a parking ramp, which is an unappealing, dead, land use.

                      A three story apartment house? Might actually increase the value of your property (see links elsewhere in this thread). The general notion is that investment near your property is good for your property value. That seems like it should be obviously, but for some reason, it’s counter-intuitive.

                    • Submitted by Dan Berg on 04/08/2016 - 06:30 am.

                      Helpful to who?

                      Not all investment would increase value, the ramp is one just mentioned. Living very near commercial property increases crime rates, having a new prison built next door would likely not increase values, nor would a train station or off-ramp. The form of the new investment matters as does its proximity so my point remains.

                      The articles talk about the value of nearby homes often remaining the same but also talk about those directly adjacent potentially dropping. The point about the ramp moving in next door to you is to illustrate that even if new investment is potentially is a value to the larger neighborhood, and regardless of what it does to the “market value” of your home, because a ramp is unattractive to you the current owner, it reduces your home’s value to you. What it is worth on the market is only of interest if you sell it and move. While market values may in aggregate, over a larger area, remain the same the people who value the properties at that level will be to some degree different. This means significant expense to the individuals who would rather relocate. This is something planners fail to acknowledge or take any responsibility for.

                      Understanding zoning as a type of contract is most definitely helpful to most property owners, just not to planners who don’t like taking responsibility for the effects of their work. Zoning was implemented in large part to help give those investing in building and buying property that there would be stability. Buying property is, after all, about location primarily and zoning is designed to “create” locations. When the city/planning-district creates a zoning layout it directs massive amounts of investment, that is the point of it. To say that they should be then allowed to change it without any direct responsibility for the results seems irrational. Typically it is a good idea to connect authority directly with responsibility. There is no reason we shouldn’t expect public projects to be

                      I also wonder why so many who advocate for these changes are so opposed to the idea of compensation and responsibility. Yes, it will make changes more expensive in dollars but if the city as a whole will benefit then the city as a whole should pay the entire cost of the change rather than putting the burden on a few adjacent property owners. If what planners claim is true there should be little worry about the city still coming out ahead while ensuring far less opposition from individual residence about potential changes. My guess is that planners don’t really have much confidence in their ideas (urban renewal anyone?) so would rather have the authority and forego the responsibility.

                    • Submitted by Adam Miller on 04/11/2016 - 11:01 am.

                      Thinking about zoning as a contract

                      Can only confuse you. Zoning gives you no rights to prevent variances and conditional use permits, and you’re owned no damages when due process results in them. Because it’s not a contract.

                      Also, we probably don’t want to get into the history behind was motivated the adoption of zoning, but it’s not as rosy as you paint it.

                    • Submitted by Dan Berg on 04/11/2016 - 02:32 pm.


                      That is true in a legal sense but then it doesn’t make it true in a moral or ethical sense. The will of the majority is often able to effect the definition of “legal” to mask what would otherwise be I in expectable behavior. The dark side of zoning is due to this exact fact and those who which to use it now are no more right to do so then those who did it in decades past. Everybody believes and says they are acting for the greater good. There seem to be reasonable ways of changing zooming that treats existing property owners fairly rather than doing so in a way that will increase intransigence. Why is there such push back on the idea that those who change zoning should take responsibility for the impact of their decisions? That a city as a whole should be considerate to individual property owners whom they may negatively effect.

                    • Submitted by Morgan Bird on 04/08/2016 - 11:21 pm.

                      Did homeowners have to pay anyone when the whole neighborhood was downzoned? If not, why not?

                    • Submitted by Dan Berg on 04/09/2016 - 07:17 am.


                      I’m not sure of any particular example of an area being “downzoned” so I can only assume the pay who for what part of your comment. I assume you mean in a case where high density is changed to lower density. My point on compensation isn’t predicated on the change in zoning being in one direction or another so the same idea would apply. I imagine those most effected in zoning change that reduces density are owners of buildings which would no longer be allowed and could run in to issues down the road obtaining permits to update or change those buildings. Rezoning typically grandfathers in existing property use to some degree. Also there would be a loss of potential value to ALL property owners in the rezoned area because their future use has additional restrictions to their use not in place at the time of purchase. For instance a person who owned a single family home could no longer sell it to a developer looking to build a mid-rise mixed-use building.

                      Since the entity making the zoning changes is the city the city would need to pay the compensation. Same as in my previously stated example.

                • Submitted by Adam Miller on 04/06/2016 - 03:31 pm.

                  Density does not necessarily mean more traffic

                  Especially if it enables residents to be car-free or car-light.

                  Also, in the city, I don’t think you can say anything about how much traffic there is a side street based on whether it is all SFH or includes small apartments, as I’d guess that the vast majority of trips in any dense part of the city are through trips (i.e., traffic on the 2500 block of Aldrich, for example, is more likely to be going elsewhere than originating on that block). Even more so when there are alleys in play, meaning a good portion of trips for residents of the block start and stop in the alley.

                  • Submitted by Dan Berg on 04/07/2016 - 07:58 am.


                    That might be true for certain areas but not for many others. Areas zoned currently for single family residences typically don’t have the level of transit needed to reduce car usage significantly. They are in areas which would require long trips with multiple transfers to get to and from most destinations regularly. Also the types of development this article suggests don’t typically include sufficient parking for residence which mean a lot more cars parked on the streets. Sure, many trips are through trips but as density in the area goes up so will through trips in the area.

                    Just look at the Uptown/Wedge/Lyndale/Whittier neighborhoods. There are a lot of these mid-sized apartments mixed in with single family homes and commercial properties. It is generally very walkable/bikeable and has a lot of transit options yet the streets are full of parked cars and there is a lot of automotive traffic. Same with more dense urban cities like New York, Chicago, London or Paris even though they have high levels of transit and walking trips. So yes, higher density means more traffic.

                    • Submitted by Bill Lindeke on 04/08/2016 - 10:26 am.


                      Just one example, but especially once you start generating positive feedback loops from transit and land use, traffic, density, and population are not necessarily linked.


                      “We have seen a trend, a downward trend over the past 15 years – vehicles entering the city, vehicles entering the downtown, we have seen a downward trend on vehicles crossing the Burrard Bridge, we have seen a downward trend on vehicles entering and leaving [University of British Columbia].So we’re seeing those continual drops city-wide.”

                    • Submitted by Dan Berg on 04/08/2016 - 01:09 pm.

                      Vancouver has a bit of a unique situation regarding the land it is on because it is virtually an island which makes it naturally more compact and mass transit more compelling. Also, as the article you posted states it has no freeways in the city and therefore getting cars in to and out of the city is difficult. This is exemplified by the fact that they have by far the worst traffic congestion in Canada and among the worst in the world.


                      I don’t mind the idea of not increasing traffic lanes and in general not subsidizing automotive use and am not worried about decreasing congestion. I like walkable neighborhoods and live in what I think is one of the most walkable areas of the cities. The question on the “missing middle” however is something different. With the facts at play in the twin cities placing more people into residential neighborhoods will likely increase traffic because it doesn’t change the need for a car. The North Loop is a great example of how mixed use can be applied to revitalize an area without adversely effecting existing residence.

            • Submitted by Anton Schieffer on 04/06/2016 - 09:43 am.

              Buildings are being maintained

              It’s absolutely false that buildings from the 60s and 70s are not being maintained in order to keep rents low. Plenty of buildings from this era have been remodeled. In fact, there’s one near me at 2800 Girard that was recently completely redone. And if buildings like that reduce desirability, that certainly didn’t stop the development which has happened along the Greenway. Plus wouldn’t we be seeing lots of cheap single-family homes for sale in the Wedge if these walkups were lowering desirability?

  9. Submitted by Rachel Kahler on 04/05/2016 - 01:15 pm.


    Holy cow. I would say no to all three of the monstrosities pictured in this article. Developers need to not only design for use, but design for the neighborhood. The proposed development design in the second picture clearly doesn’t fit the neighborhood character. Is that essential? Well, flies and vinegar and honey and stuff, you know? The one built in the 60’s/70’s doesn’t belong anywhere, design-wise. It’s just ugly. The design used for Motiv? Ok for uptown where all the aluminum and glass buildings are popping up. Questionable for its current location.

    I agree that most of the basis for neighborhood challenges to multi-family dwellings in a neighborhood has to do with classism, but it’s harder to hide the real motive if you design something that fits.

    • Submitted by Bill Lindeke on 04/06/2016 - 11:01 am.

      “neighborhood character”

      To me this term often does more harm than good. Character and aesthetics are certainly in the eye of the beholder! Walk around the Wedge and count the historic “missing middle” buildings. 3-story brick apartments are everywhere in the neighborhood, and in much of the city. Are 70s “mushroom apartments” neighborhood character?

      The truth is, there is no essential “character” for any neighborhood. There are many competing stories, many different eras and types of building. Cities are complex and overlapping things.

      • Submitted by Rachel Kahler on 04/06/2016 - 01:29 pm.

        Many residents

        would beg to differ. Sure, it’s in the “eye of the beholder” to some extent. But there’s a reason the Golden Ratio can be found in all kinds of aesthetically pleasing things–it’s because beauty is not entirely in the eye of the beholder. It’s foolish to believe that you can expect people who have invested time, money, blood, and sweat into the place they live to be happy about someone suggesting putting an aluminum and glass brick in the middle of their quaint neighborhood with meticulous yards and painted siding. It’s an abrupt and unpleasant interruption in the aesthetic continuity of their neighborhood. If you want to champion the missing middle, don’t ignore the fact that not everyone is so keen on hipster-style, high density living. If you want to gain the support of the neighborhoods, don’t shove an eyesore (in their minds) in their faces. You’re not going to gain support without conceding that the existing residents might want a say in what their neighborhood looks like. Sure, they might find other complaints, but it’s harder to have a knee jerk reaction if the aesthetics don’t automatically trigger it.

        By the way, aesthetics have been researched with relation to various quality of life issues. Interestingly, aesthetics of a neighborhood can affect not only mental health, but physical health. In one of the studies linked below, aesthetics actually improved the health of seniors by encouraging walking. What’s more interesting is that it actually is a factor in the socioeconomic discrepancies in seniors’ health. That is, ugly neighborhoods tend to be poorer, and people walk less in those neighborhoods. Whereas, poorer neighborhoods that aren’t ugly actually counter some of that. In another study, positive perceptions of aesthetics reduced the odds of adolescents in a particular neighborhood being overweight or obese.If aesthetics were only in the eye of the beholder, there would be no correlation. It also means that utilitarian design needs to be buffered with aesthetic considerations.

        Some scholarly articles on aesthetics in neighborhoods (full text only–there are more behind paywalls):

        • Submitted by Joseph Totten on 04/06/2016 - 02:37 pm.

          Confusing, and paywalls

          The science direct articles were still paywalled.

          This is confusing to me, I despise the new teardowns, the columns on the front stoop are atrocious, the colors look awful, they have bay and picture windows where they don’t seem to belong. There are also single family homes which are being torn down and rebuilt with steel, concrete, etc. But there is no recourse for this because it is single family. Should duplexes to smaller apartments specifically be mandated to be prettier than other construction?

          The journal articles (from what I was actually able to get) only used self reported aesthetic values… This only makes me think this would be more of a broken window effect (as greenery is another variable), as you and I obviously do have different opinions on aesthetics, these likely would carry over between us, and therefore are more likely to carry over throughout the population.

          • Submitted by Rachel Kahler on 04/07/2016 - 08:44 am.

            Try again

            The science direct articles are available without payment. You might want to try again. Maybe a different browser?

            Anyway, I also agree that it might be nice to consider aesthetics when building single family homes, as well. There’s lots of guidance on this in developers’ and architects’ literature, as far as I can tell. I came across several when looking for literature to share earlier. They talk about lines and size and lot-to-home ratios. They even talk about character, which suggests it’s not such a nebulous concept as some people would like to claim.

            Unfortunately, yes, there are fewer difficulties with putting in a single family home (regardless of aesthetic value) in an area zoned for single family homes. It’s not fair, but life’s not fair. My point is still that, if you want to make an investment into building a rental property larger than a single family home and you need to get some neighborhood love in order to help convince the powers that be to rezone, you’d best do some thinking about what the neighborhood might accept aesthetically. In other words, ugly single family homes isn’t the topic of my posts. The “they do it, too” argument has little to do with the issue of the missing middle.

            As for my taste in aesthetics, it depends on the context. I’ve seen some very modern construction that I find beautiful. I find lots of modern lines and materials to be tasteful. In the right setting. Don’t assume that I’m all about scrolly Victorian homes. They’re beautiful, too. In the right context.

            My home (exterior-wise) is, quite frankly, dull. But I don’t think that sticking something completely out of context into my neighborhood will make it better. I certainly don’t approve of sticking something that ruins the continuity of my neighborhood into it after I’ve committed to a mortgage.

            • Submitted by Joseph Totten on 04/07/2016 - 11:02 am.

              I Think This is Most Relevant

              As you say, the comments here aren’t really related to the missing middle. Simply new construction often is in conflict with nearby homes, while some middle buildings are larger than neighboring houses, they can be make or break for a neighborhood, and therefore, building neighborhood support for these projects using aesthetics is more important.

              The featured photo here, not aesthetically pleasing to yourself (and likely others), probably doesn’t ruin the neighborhood aesthetic, as it is actually smaller than (what looks to be) the single family homes on either side. Maybe the larger buildings are more of a concern? Am I getting this right?

              The issue of the missing middle isn’t one of aesthetics, but one of zoning, one of disallowing smaller units in the area (I think you’ve said similar things within the thread here…) and if neighbors could agree on what exactly is aesthetically acceptable, and stick to it, then this probably would be easily managed. But it seems that neighbors don’t agree, and even if they do many are unflinching in fighting any new development, such that guidance to developers is pretty much null.

              • Submitted by Rachel Kahler on 04/08/2016 - 02:45 pm.

                You’re right

                There will be some neighbors and neighborhoods that will fight tooth and nail against a development for multifamily dwellings, and there’s diddly you can do about that. But, if it’s only some neighbors and some neighborhoods, that is substantially better than most neighbors and most neighborhoods, right? And a chance that reasonable development will prevail because an entire neighborhood isn’t convincing their council members to retain single family housing zoning no matter what.

                That said, I completely disagree with Mr. Cecchini regarding providing less say for neighborhoods. It’s already balanced against neighborhoods, as astutely pointed out in a comment in another recent article, because zoning hearings often happen when home owners can’t attend (at least without financial burden), even if they’re aware of them (NOBODY EXPECTS THE SPANISH INQUISITION!). Without input of home owners in a neighborhood, which isn’t terribly unusual, developers can frequently have the ears of city officials to drive rezoning. And, even when citizens can and do appear, it often doesn’t matter. In my city, the council approved zoning for a giant Walmart to be plopped down in a neighborhood. Yeah, it’s not an apartment complex, but it definitely changed the neighborhood despite resident protests, and not for the good (I recently read an article on a person retiring from the city planning commission that it was the biggest mistake she ever made).

                Buying a house is the biggest financial commitment most people make. And, it’s one that most people must commit to for a very long time–the life of the mortgage–15-30 years– or longer. It’s one thing if the neighborhood was zoned a certain way before moving in, or there are vacant lots that have not already been filled with single family homes, but it’s quite another when an established neighborhood is significantly modified without reasonable input from home owners. I agree that it should be REASONABLE input, and it often isn’t. But that’s where developers need to convince home owners to be reasonable rather than knee jerk about potential changes to their neighborhood. As an outsider, it’s at least perceived, if not entirely true, that a developer does NOT know what’s best for a neighborhood, and it’s condescending and patronizing to claim that they do.

            • Submitted by Alex Cecchini on 04/07/2016 - 01:20 pm.

              At the end of the day

              allowing more people to live in certain neighborhoods, in a wider variety of housing styles and price points, trumps neighborhood aesthetic arguments in my opinion. Even in the studies you cite, building design is only one small component of “neighborhood aesthetics” as they relate to those health outcomes. Street design, presence of trees, condition of pavement/sidewalks, and a host of other factors all play into this. There has been more than enough research to show that buildings of various heights, massing, and design that create a sense of enclosure (unlike single family homes set back 20′ from the street) provide similar mental outcomes. But, like anything, individual components of urban design should not necessarily be focused on too-much. We should compare any positive value from aesthetics (which are also hard to define over a 100 year period) to outcomes like housing affordability, economic and educational impacts on low-income residents who are able to live in mixed-income neighborhoods, economic impacts of people able to live closer to work or where transportation costs are lower, etc etc.

              tl;dr, It’s my opinion that neighborhoods should have less say in giving approval to developments that will barely, if at all, impact their lives but have substantial positive impacts to the people who can live in them.

  10. Submitted by Tom Wald on 04/05/2016 - 07:49 pm.

    Great post! Feature photo is on Pillsbury.

    I love the post!

    I recognize the four-plex, as I have been inside it.

    It’s on Pillsbury Avenue, not Pleasant Avenue:
    Google Maps Street View:

    Long live Whittier, Lyndale, and Wedge Neighborhoods’ “missing”-middle housing!

    • Submitted by Bill Lindeke on 04/06/2016 - 11:02 am.

      thanks for the correction

      Yeah, I was using a hazy memory as a guide here. I took the photo years ago when visiting friends who lived in a tri-plex across the street. Something about the building grabbed my eye. Maybe the angled doorway entrance?

  11. Submitted by Dan Berg on 04/06/2016 - 06:34 am.

    Part of the responsibility

    One of the issues around zoning is that it effects how people make what is often the largest investment of their lives. Purchasing a house is most often the largest financial decision many people will make and how the neighborhood and address they select is either directly or indirectly a major reason for that selection. Changing zoning can have a significant impact on the value of properties in or near the area in question. If an area had been zoned as single family residential and it is changed so that a some lots can have a taller building that sit nearer lot lines with commercial use on the ground level I can understand how the surrounding owners could be upset.

    A big reason we have zoning at all is so people can have some confidence that surrounding use won’t deviate significantly from what it is when they make a large purchase. I understand that people feel that they have a better plan for the city (every generation has thought the same thing) and want to redraw how it is laid out but there needs to be an acknowledgment of the true costs involved. Zoning isn’t just a map where the colored blocks can be played with like a video game until those doing the planning are satisfied. Changing zoning is somewhat akin to eminent domain. It might not be fulling taking of property but can represent a form of regulatory taking and we should consider the costs to property owners and compensate accordingly when making changes. This would allow for changes but create a natural barrier to simplistically following the latest fads in urban planning.

    • Submitted by Matthew Steele on 04/06/2016 - 10:55 am.

      Akin to regulatory taking

      It goes both ways. Some people may claim that a walk-up apartment building or (gasp!) a corner store will decrease their property value (theoretically, a regulatory taking). But are use-based zoning restrictions not a much more significant regulatory taking?

      Especially 1. for owners of properties that are non-conforming, so they are stuck (see Michael Crow’s SRO, or the non-conforming retail in my neighborhood) or 2. when downzoning is attempted (see The Wedge Times-Picayune: A History of Downzoning).

      And for those who live in desirable neighborhoods like the Wedge who are concerned that new luxury apartments down the block will reduce the value of their property: I have a deal for them. Get a current appraisal of your property. When you sell down the road, since you are convinced that your property values are going down (regulatory taking, after all!) I will offer you $1,000 cash if you sell the property at a loss relative to today’s appraisal. If your property gets upzoned in the next comprehensive plan, I’ll make it $2,000 cash.

      My condition? If the property happens to sell for more than it is worth today, I only ask for half of that increase. But since people are so afraid that density will lower their property values, it’s surely to be free money for them…

      I’m guessing nobody will take me up on that.

    • Submitted by Adam Miller on 04/06/2016 - 12:18 pm.

      You’re right

      Rezoning and adding density can have a significant impact on property values. It drives them up. See:

    • Submitted by Morgan Bird on 04/08/2016 - 11:32 pm.

      A big reason we have zoning is segregation

      If you really wanna be historically accurate. As Matthew Steele points out, it’s just a regulatory taking. Monopoly rents. Recent research is showing it’s actually a huge driver of income inequality.

  12. Submitted by John Appelen on 04/06/2016 - 04:22 pm.


    Since I travel to Korea and China often for business, and these folks know about population density… I am not sure what big city would go for those small buildings, especially as the cost of the land increases.

    • Submitted by Alex Cecchini on 04/07/2016 - 01:29 pm.

      I don’t know for sure, either

      ..but I know that really small-scale stuff is financially viable. I wrote a post evaluating what it takes in Minneapolis:

      A small-scale development may not always be the right fit for every lot. Some really will have too high land costs to justify a 3-4 story building replacing whatever is there. However, there are plenty of lots, even in desirable parts of Minneapolis, with older, run-down houses where acquisition and demolition costs aren’t too high to justify a slightly denser replacement. The 2008 Bryant proposal, the new 2743 Dupont 4-plex, and even the Motiv apartment example (all in the Wedge) highlight this. Point is, “missing-middle” development won’t be a solution to every housing need, but it fills an important gap.

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