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Floor area ratio 101: This obscure but useful planning tool shapes the city

Courtesy of Alatus Development
Alatus’ proposed 40-story apartment tower just across the river from downtown Minneapolis.

Sometimes zoning is like a puzzle, a game that buildings seem to play by fitting together detailed pieces. For example, a little tool called the “floor area ratio” (FAR) can often be a great shorthand measure for urban design.

“If you have an acre site and the max FAR is 1,” said Nick Magrino, explaining the basic concept, “you could have a one-story building that took up the whole site, or you could have one that takes up half the site but is 2 stories, or ¼ the site and 4 stories tall.” 

The floor area ratio is one of those little tools that get put into the zoning code mix, generally employing a mix of maximums and minimums to ensure a proper “goldilocks size” and to shape building design. And as two recent examples from St. Paul and Minneapolis show, FAR might be becoming a more useful tool in the future as cities look to double down on old-school urban density. 

Floor-area math explained

Calculating a FAR is pretty simple. Technically, it’s the ratio of total building square footage to the the surface area of the lot; but another way of thinking about it is the number of stories divided by the amount of surface parking. For the most part, older multistory buildings have higher FARs, simply because in the pre-automobile age, space was at a premium. Meanwhile, postwar auto-oriented developments, like strip malls or big-box stores, almost always have ratios much less than 1.0. Parking lots, grassy setbacks, and drive-thru lanes take up a lot of space when you sum it up.

St. Paul’s University Avenue is a great modern-day testing ground for different approaches to building design, and examining the FARs along the street brings out a chiaroscuro contrast. (For example, Midway Books, the bookstore on the northeast corner of Snelling and University, has a FAR of 2.86, while the Target down the street has a FAR of only 0.37.) For many in the neighborhood, the light rail line has made the old low-FAR approach obsolete.

Courtesy of the City of St. Paul
FAR comparisons along Univeristy Ave.

“We let them put in a drive-thru knowing the train was coming,” said Renee Spillum, a Midway resident and commercial development planner, describing the University Avenue Culver’s, now a few years old. “It’s not going to go away because it’s super profitable. What can we do to stop expediency from keeping us from doing the right thing when it comes along?”

One answer might be a greater focus on regulating the FAR for new buildings. As a member of the Community Advisory Committee that helped plan the Snelling-University soccer stadium site, Spillum pushed to raise the FAR bar for the area. At stake is the density and shape of the surrounding development, the land along Snelling and University Avenues that will someday surround the stadium.

“FAR is a tool the city could be using to ensure we have high density on the site, Spillum said. “With the transit amenities nearby, FAR minimums are a tool we should be looking at for master planning the stadium site. Each individual parcel should have to meet a higher standard than 1.0. A one-story building with a surface parking lot on one half of the parcel is terrible for that site.”

Courtesy of the City of St. Paul
How FAR is calculated.

During its deliberation, the committee debated higher FARs around the edges of the site, with one suggestion to up the minimums to around 4.0. But after some pushback from the current property owner, staff and the City Council settled at a FAR of 2.0 (i.e. an average of a two-story building). 

Minneapolis FAR maximums

St. Paul’s addiction to drive-thru fast food isn’t the only thing that has prompted planners to take a closer look at ratio requirements. A string of low-density (<1.0 FAR) buildings in Minneapolis has been on Planning Commissioner Nick Magrino’s mind lately. He wants to see the city make more use of FAR minimums to shape developments like the recently approved Holiday gas station on Northeast Central Avenue.

“We’ve seen a lot of lackluster proposals,” Magrino said. “We keep talking about it the White Castle, the Holiday, the Walgreens, the Wells Fargo bank. … There’s nothing we can do about this because it’s all allowed by zoning. If we had a FAR minimums, we could be demanding better development.”

Minimums are one thing; FAR maximums are another. Despite being a fan of urban density, Magrino recently voted against granting a variance for a proposed 40-story apartment tower on the site of a northeast Minneapolis funeral home, just across the river from downtown. For Magrino, even though he supported the project, the idea that such a large variance was even required in the first place didn’t sit well.

“The 600 percent increase is kind of a lot,” Magrino said during the Commission meeting earlier this month. “It really calls into question the whole point of having a zoning code. If people want these kinds of projects to get built, we should work on reforming our zoning code.”

(The variance passed the Planning Commission anyway, and the building is currently on track to proceed.)

Scrutiny for big projects

For her part, Spillum, who has a background in urban policy, feels that maximums are a good way for cities to give large projects a bit of extra attention.

“When you want to push something really big, it’s worth having some scrutiny, as long as they are on a path to allowing variances,” Spillum said. “Anything you allow by right, nobody has to ask permission to build. That to me is the point of zoning: Anything within these parameters is acceptable, but anything outside of them, we’re not saying ‘absolutely not,’ only that they have to come in and talk to us about it.”

The difference in perspective stems from the relationship between variances and regulations.

“Some really good service journalism would be explaining that a required ‘conditional use permit’ for height is not a height limit,” Magrino said.

In other words, the “limits” in the code aren’t really limits, but thresholds that trigger different levels of attention from cities and planners. But as the northeast tower project reveals, the relationship between guidelines and exceptions around FAR can sometimes become dramatically imbalanced.

“We’re working on the comp plan right now,” Magrino said. ”I’m optimistic we’ll get slightly more progressive regulations, but at the moment our hands are tied. Sitting up there, people can look at a project and say ‘this is ridiculous,’ but we don’t have a way to deny them legally.”

St. Paul, too, is putting its comprehensive plan together, and looking for ways to ensure urban density. FAR might offer a useful tool for better shaping development along University Avenue and other transit corridors. If it works, the future might look more like the past, chock full of two-story buildings.

Comments (6)

  1. Submitted by Anton Schieffer on 10/03/2016 - 10:27 am.

    Outdated zoning code

    I agree with Magrino that archaic zoning laws are how we end up with suburban-style development in places that are desperate for more. The new Walgreens on 27th and Hennepin and the Holiday in NE are both buildings that should be better (how about some mixed-use in these popular areas?), but that are allowed by law, so we’re stuck with their poor design decisions for a long time.

    One alternative is to move towards form-based zoning code, which focuses on the building structure of new development, rather than intended use. It seems like any project that is architecturally interesting must go before The Committee of Angry Neighbors to get some sort of variance, and that often turns into a drawn-out political battle. Form-based zoning would make future growth in Minneapolis more predictable, and that growth needs to happen to slow rising rents and property taxes.

  2. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 10/03/2016 - 11:23 am.


    I can’t speak for St. Paul, but the Minneapolis zoning code appears – to a civilian, at least – to be very much outdated. Couple that with a development-approval process that’s archaic and subject to numerous avenues of abuse and the results are often less-than-appealing.

    The city’s conflict-of-interest regulations are so lax as to be meaningless, and until I got here, I’d never encountered a planning commission that included a sitting city council member as a regular member, which strikes me as one more in a string of bad ideas. I’d also argue that the city’s planning commission, like other planning commissions I’ve served on, is misnamed. The city’s PED (Planning and Economic Development to the uninitiated) staff may actually work on plans for the city’s future, but the planning commission is essentially a “development review commission,” and if it functions as most planning commissions do, the only time it actually considers the city’s future in a “planned community” kind of way is on those rare occasions when the PED staff present the commission with a new comprehensive plan. Most planning commissions, most of the time, operate with an abbreviated time horizon that rarely looks beyond 2 or 3 years out.

    Since comprehensive plans in Minnesota do not have the force of law, they can be safely ignored by the city’s political and economic leaders at will, essentially making the many hours of work by PED staff, interested community members, neighborhood associations, etc., an exercise in futility. That’s the whole rationale for “variances” from a plan that, supposedly, professionals and citizens alike (via adoption by the city council) agreed upon. If a developer waves enough money in front of the city council or the mayor in just about any city in the country where a comp plan is not enforceable, that developer will get what s/he wants, whether or not it fits the comp plan, or is good for the city in the long run, or whether or not actual residents of the city want it to happen. In our increasingly plutocratic society, money tends to talk far louder than citizen voices.

    At least one other side of that development nut features those same citizens taking their frustrations out on projects that may well be quite valuable and worthwhile. Most people genuinely hate change in their living conditions that they themselves did not initiate, whether that change will benefit the community as a whole or not, and new buildings, street realignments, new regulations in the form of building and zoning code revisions, all fall into that category of annoyances that can occasionally get NIMBY forces out in sizable numbers at public meetings. Couple that with our widely-demonstrated bias in favor of particular types of housing and/or commercial development, and I’m sometimes surprised that the city has any residents at all.

    • Submitted by Steve Elkins on 10/04/2016 - 01:42 pm.

      Comp Plans do have the force of law …

      … in the Twin Cities Metro Area. Not only that, but they trump the zoning code when there are conflicts. (By law, zoning codes have to be consistent with a city’s comp plan.) Since all Metro Cities will be revising their comp plans in accordance with the Met Council’s Thrive 2040 regional blueprint and submitting them to the Council for review by 2018, this the exactly the right time to be asking these types of questions. (See section 473 of the MN State Statutes.)

  3. Submitted by Connie Sullivan on 10/03/2016 - 03:12 pm.

    How and where is the city, or the Planning staff, developing a new Master Plan? Are they holding public hearings (I went to some big meetings when the early 2000’s plan was developed)? Are they doing it without the public this time?

  4. Submitted by Bill Lindeke on 10/03/2016 - 03:38 pm.

    a few more details

    This comment come in from a planner friend of mine on Facebook:

    Cities often exempt certain spaces from the FAR calculation. For example, in Minneapolis structured parking isn’t calculated in the FAR for a property. In Seattle, exterior staircases (in some cases) and covered but open parking is not counted. The result are buildings that have massing or design functionality that confuses the end user. Examples: MoZaic in Uptown has six levels of above-grade structured parking that is exempted from the FAR calculation. In Seattle, townhouses are built with open garages that are only good for parking cars since it isn’t secure to lock your bike. They also will have goofy open staircases to rooftop decks that create long term water infiltration liabilities for the end user,

    – If height is a concern, perhaps cities should adopt strict height limits and right size them during planning processes. A conditional use permit for height is confusing for all parties involved, as it does not set expectations for adjacent property owners on what is reasonable redevelopment, developers for what is reasonable to entitle, property owners for what they could reasonably expect a developer to pay for their property (based upon per-unit approach to land value), etc. There is a lot I don’t like about Seattle and development, but I do like that they have fairly strict height limits. It puts the development debate into the planning and rezoning study process, where it belongs vs. the entitlement process.

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