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Bde Maka Ska area ‘conservation district’ proposal allowed to move forward

MinnPost photo by Bill Lindeke
In a prime location next to the city’s most popular lake, all the homes are valuable.

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.

1906 home. An iconic cottage style house, built before WWI. The large, decorative red brick chimney adds an inviting character.
Heritage Preservation Commission
1906 home. An iconic cottage-style house, built before World War I. The large, decorative red brick chimney adds an inviting character.
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?”

1931 home. This home was originally built as a bungalow but has had a significant, more modern, addition to the front.
Heritage Preservation Commission
1931 home. This home was originally built as a bungalow but has had a significant, more modern, addition to the front.
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.

General Conservation District Map
Heritage Preservation Commission
Conservation district map
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.

1936 home
Heritage Preservation Commission
1936 home. This home has a transitional style between midcentury modern and more contemporary '70s and '80s houses. The house is backed by the wooded hill of The Minikahda Club.
“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.

Heritage Preservation Commission
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 [2040] 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.”

Comments (13)

  1. Submitted by Adam Miller on 09/18/2019 - 11:29 am.

    Commissioner Stade is correct. While these homes may share a somewhat unique location, there is simply nothing coherent about them as a group of homes to justify their “preservation” as such.

    As can be seen in the pictures included with this article, these houses have very little in common overall.

  2. Submitted by Ian Stade on 09/18/2019 - 12:11 pm.

    I would add that in the linked article you share a possible parallel between the concept of conservation districts and racist homeowners associations of the past, and that gave me great pause.

    It would be an utter failure on our part as a commission if conservation districts become a modern-day tool to preserve privileged white spaces.

    Thanks for your coverage of this topic and with multiple voices represented.

    • Submitted by Pat Terry on 09/18/2019 - 11:51 pm.

      Possible parallels? There is no possible about it. This is just some wealthy homeowners exempting themselves from the 2040 plan to keep the undesirables out.

      This is white supremacy at its very essence. The commission IS an utter failure for sending this through. I look forward to the council squashing this nonsense. Hopefully they will just disband the commission while they are at it.

      • Submitted by Ian Stade on 09/19/2019 - 11:18 am.

        Thankfully, this isn’t set in stone, this just was the initiation of a study. I don’t foresee a study that would make a good argument to conserve this neighborhood that a majority of the commission will vote for.

        I’ve very thankful the planning commission and city council are a check on us when we are out of step with reality. We are independent and have experts on our commission but that doesn’t makes us always fall on the right side of history.

        By the way, there are 4 spots open on the commission this fall. Some incumbents like me will be applying to re-up but if you know anyone interested, please share this info:

  3. Submitted by lisa miller on 09/18/2019 - 12:17 pm.

    So basically if you have money and can afford a historic home, you don’t need to worry about a large apartment complex being built next door. The rest of us, not so easy. I agree character and charm make cities appealing. Although one could argue Minneapolis let that one go years ago. What is troubling is how again, those in the middle to low income get stuck with the not so charming neighborhood. The SW LRT route was a mistake, yes we need mass transit, but buses and other options were available. Again they use it as an excuse to then build up vs putting the LRT where there was already density–say to Brooklyn Park or to Burnsville.

  4. Submitted by Evan Roberts on 09/18/2019 - 04:28 pm.

    The boundaries of the conservation district consciously exclude the 3 apartment buildings that front Bde Maka Ska, and have more than half the population and housing units on the two blocks. It’s absurd to claim that this is a neighborhood defined by small scale housing and a lake cottage aesthetic — there are apartment buildings from other historic eras when people were keen to build apartments and condos. Building more 8-10 story buildings here would be totally in character with the existing scale of any reasonable definition of this neighborhood.

  5. Submitted by Katie Jones on 09/18/2019 - 06:03 pm.

    To Steve Anderson:
    Do residents of Downtown, the North Loop, and Saint Anthony Main think they are part of a neighborhood?

    It seems rather arbitrary to say that only those who live in short dwellings are part of a neighborhood.

  6. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 09/19/2019 - 07:58 am.

    Interesting. I don’t think this makes any sense as conservation problem (there’s nothing worth conserving or preserving back in there), but it does make sense as push back to the density and 2040 plan.

    Kind of funny… the ink isn’t even dry yet on 2040 and we have proposals like this in the pipeline?

  7. Submitted by RB Holbrook on 09/19/2019 - 10:15 am.

    “I might overstate that, but 5-story, 8-story, 10-story apartment buildings are not a neighborhood.”

    Sorry, Mr. Anderson, but yes, they are.

    • Submitted by Pat Terry on 09/19/2019 - 07:05 pm.

      But that is exactly how a lot of people think. If you aren’t a single-family homeowner, you are nobody. If you rent, you are nobody. Your voice doesn’t count.

      • Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 09/24/2019 - 09:29 am.

        “But that is exactly how a lot of people think. If you aren’t a single-family homeowner, you are nobody. If you rent, you are nobody. Your voice doesn’t count.”

        This may be true, but the “homeowner” perspective can nevertheless be legitimate. Not to say that anyone is irrelevant, of course we want everyone to “count”.

        However we also can’t sacrifice legitimate investment for the sake of false equivalence. It is a fact, most of know from having been renters ourselves at some point in our lives, that people who don’t plan to live somewhere for more than 2-3 years, don’t own their property, and make no investment whatsoever in their property or neighborhood, might not warrant the same “voice” as other in the neighborhood.

        For the vast majority of renters, whatever neighborhood or property problems may be… they be the landlords problem not the renters. The primary interactions for renters are with their fellow renters and landlords, not the neighborhood outside the building. This doesn’t make anyone less of a person than anyone else, but it IS a significant difference between a renter and a senior who’s lived on the block for 30 years in their own home.

        I can’t say I know how to properly balance the import of different types of residents, but it doesn’t seem to me we can treat them equally.

        • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 09/24/2019 - 04:09 pm.

          “However we also can’t sacrifice legitimate investment for the sake of false equivalence.”

          Just to let you know: I rent, having concluded that homeownership was not my cup of tea. We have lived at the same address for the past 6 years and have no plans to move. I interact on a daily basis with “the neighborhood outside the building.”

          Tel me again why I might not “warrant the same ‘voice’ as other in the neighborhood.”

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