The little neighborhood surrounding Ivy Lane and West 32nd Street consists of a few blocks on the west shore of Bde Maka Ska. These blocks sit in what resident Meg Forney describes as an “odd little crotch” between two hills, between the sprawling Minikahda Golf Course on the south and the hulking office buildings along West Lake Street. Many of the homes date to the early 1900s, and come in a mix of shapes and sizes. Many are very small — what Forney calls “cottages, cabins or camps” — and might be close to 1,000 square feet. Others have been modified and expanded, owners having been added on to or rebuilt through the years.
In a prime location next to the city’s most popular lake, all the homes are valuable. It’s unusual for an area like this to have such valuable homes and such diversity of housing stock — small bungalows next to larger apartment towers — all in a picturesque lakeside location.
Even more unusual is that these short streets might become the city’s first “conservation district,” an untested preservation tool intended to help retain the historic character of Minneapolis’ residential neighborhoods. Tuesday, on a 5-3 vote, the Heritage Preservation Commission (HPC) gave the budding district the go-ahead to receive further study, and potential design guidelines that could shape future development in the 3.2 acre area.
If it works out, the new conservation district would be the first in the city, and could, in practice, undermine zoning changes coming to the area as part of the newly adopted 2040 Plan. With a new station for the Southwest Light Rail being built just two blocks away, the district poses a fresh challenge to Minneapolis’ attempt to build density near transit, and poses a fresh fight between preservationists and planners on the western edge of Minneapolis.
An effort to preserve certain characteristics
As she tells it, Forney’s idea for a neighborhood conservation district emerged from conversations she’d been having with architect friends. Over a year ago, during a National Night Out event, Forney, who is long-time commissioner of the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board, raised the topic of conservation districts with her neighbors. She got largely positive responses, and eventually two-thirds of her neighbors signed on.
“To me, a historic district is the most restrictive and a conservation is the least restrictive,” said Forney. “If it needs a study, if the Heritage Preservation Commission does grant this, what attributes would need to be replicated?”
Forney and her neighbors are looking for the city’s Heritage Preservation Commission and other decision makers to allow the district to insert design standards and other regulations that might preserve some of the area’s aesthetic characteristics.
“That’s the thing,” explained Forney. “I would hope we could put in a standard that raises the bar. I don’t want it to be a judgmental thing. I don’t want you to have to have a purple house, or something very judgmental. It’s a tool in the toolbox. Anyone in Minneapolis can utilize it, and I’m astonished that our neighborhood just happens to be the first one.”
Historic districts vs. conservation districts
If you’ve ever been to a historic preservation commission meeting, you probably have a visceral sense of the kind of minutiae that’s at stake. Typically, various experts discuss topics like the colors of shingles, the thickness of windowsills, or the quality of fencing for a few hours. It’s all done in the interest of preserving the historic quality of different landmark buildings, homes, and streets.
As a result, homeowners in historic districts are sometimes left trying to figure out the least-worst way to install a garage or replace their windows. This is to say that owning a home in an officially recognized historic area, or anything on the National Register of Historic Buildings, is necessarily a painstaking proposition.
The idea of “conservation districts,” on the other hand, is meant to be a kinder, gentler way of retaining historic qualities of neighborhoods. The ordinance stemmed from a 2014 policy championed by long-time Ward 2 Council Member Cam Gordon. At the time, he argued that they might offer “more flexible design guidelines than standard historic preservation can allow.”
Until this fall, however, no neighborhoods in the city have actually submitted an application.
A preservationist view of conservation districts
“I think generally we at Preserve Minneapolis think it’s a really great tool,” said Katie Haun Schuring, the president of the city’s foremost historic preservation nonprofit. “Conservation districts can be useful in places where there’s not enough cohesive quality to make up a historic district or a National Register district, to help preserve characteristics of neighborhoods.”
Conservation districts are in general not meant to be a blunt instrument. The key, according to the original intention of the ordinance, is to allow what Gordon argued was a “middle ground” that would allow some design standards without being overly controlling or restrictive. Most important, conservation districts would not trump city zoning, so that any housing or land use allowed in the underlying zoning would still be allowed in the conservation district.
At least, that’s now it’s supposed to work.
“It’s all been in theory at this point, because nobody’s done one yet,” said Ian Stade, who is a member of the Minneapolis Heritage Preservation Commission. “The purpose can be to preserve the fabric of a distinctive neighborhood, but not to the level of a designated Historic District or a possible Historic District.”
As with most things in the urban realm, so much depends on the details, and both Stade and Haun Schuring had their own lists of “unifying elements” that can make good hallmarks of a potential conservation districts. For Haun Schuring, these might include things like homes with similar size or scale, distinctive architecture like bump-out corner windows, similar building materials, or other unifying characteristics.
“Integrity is an important thing for conservation districts,” said Stade, explaining where potential conservation districts might exist. “You might be telling the story of people of color in the city. Or there’s the example of preserving affordable housing. Even if they’re not rising to the level of architect-built houses, or maybe have more modest houses, there are swaths of the city that have great fabric.”
Density versus architectural integrity
Yet during yesterday’s HPC meeting, faced with the specific proposal for the Ivy/Zenith/32nd District, Stade voted against further study of the proposal. “Thinking about this more makes me wonder about what bar we set for CDs … we need to be careful,” he told the Council Chamber audience. “The more I think about it, I can’t support this. I know it’s just getting a study going, but I don’t want us to take a misstep here and be too general with what a conservation cistrict is.”
Even speaking generally, the conservation district idea is not without critics (including, a few years ago, me). In light of last year’s heated debate over housing, and the new zoning changes tied to the Minneapolis 2040 plan, discussion of the ordinance has raised alarms for people concerned about affordable housing in Minneapolis. In this case, the proposed conservation district garnered more than 100 public comments, including a flurry that argue the proposal is a blatant attempt to evade the city’s Minneapolis 2040 zoning changes. Others point out that the area is very close to a planned light rail stop on the under-construction Southwest Light Rail line.
Balancing the zoning code and future design guidelines would be a difficult circle to square. In theory, conservation districts like the Ivy/Zenith/32nd proposal would allow for the greater density called for in the zoning code, but also meet the goals of preserving any historic integrity within the district. In practice, such a compromise seems difficult when tighter setback, height, or other design requirements placed on new structures might preempt any larger buildings.
“When you do have a change in zoning, you can’t replace or override all of the zoning code,” cautioned Haun Schuring. “That’s going to be a tricky thing. The city or the Planning Department or the HPC will all have to work together with the guideline ordinances, and the conservation ordinance, to work together with the 2040 Plan and zoning in general. It’s going to be an interesting thing to work through.”
Tuesday’s HPC discussion reflected that tension, with multiple commissioners, even ones who voted for the proposal, wringing their hands and sharing concerns. For example, Commissioner Kimberly Sandbulte pointed out that, despite the positive staff report from the city, the proposed district did not have a great deal of historic integrity.
“What makes this different from most of Uptown?” asked Sandbulte, pointing to the size and scale of the homes. “When you get off the Lyn/Lake corridor, there are lots of communities that look very similar to this. At what point are we trying to protect all of these areas? I struggle with the defining features of this community.”
Meanwhile, many of the supporters testifying in support of the conservation district explicitly invoked the Minneapolis 2040 plan, which calls for rezoning the area around the Southwest Light Rail, including Ivy Lane and West 32nd Street, to a “Transit 10” zoning category that would, in theory, allow up to 10-story buildings to be built.
That prospect seemed to shake some of the petitioners, and was the subtext of much of the HPC conversation.
“These [staff report] pictures are missing the human scale of the neighborhood,” stated Steve Anderson, one of the homeowners in the proposed district. “[There aren’t any neighborhoods as] endangered by the 2040 Plan as ours. We’re the only neighborhood in the city being offered up, turning a little neighborhood into streets loaded with 10-story buildings. I might overstate that, but 5-story, 8-story, 10-story apartment buildings are not a neighborhood.”
Next stop: Working out design guidelines
The passage of the proposed district through the HPC means that the city’s preservation staff will take a closer look at the buildings within the proposed boundaries, and try to piece together a set of design standards that two-thirds of the property owners in the area can agree on. That’s no easy task, and even if the standards are solidified, the conservation district proposal would then to go the Planning Commission and the City Council for final approval.
As one of the district’s supporters predicted during Tuesday’s public testimony: “We’re going to be in a dogfight with the Planning Commission and the Comprehensive Plan, and the same City Council that voted on the  Plan is going to vote on this.”
On the other hand, if the district is approved and shapes new construction, it could set a citywide precedent for Minneapolis that would allow more control for communities concerned about the integrity of their historic homes and streets.
“There is something that’s very unique about our neighborhood,” explained Forney before the meeting. “The development pattern to me is what is very unique. People seemed very interested in it, because there is something very unique about the area.”