For those who remember a time before COVID, the phrase “Minneapolis 2040” might ring a bell. Before the pandemic wiped other news off the front page, Minneapolis endured a heated conversation over its 2040 Comprehensive Plan, which was formally adopted last October. The ambitious planning document called for a host of innovative policies — legalizing triplexes citywide, reducing parking minimums, increasing housing options closer to transit — and made headlines all across the country.
But plans only count if they are used, and when it comes to the on-the-ground rules that govern cities, the devil is in the details. A year after its passage, Minneapolis has finally started to implement the goals of the 2040 Plan. This month, planning staff, commissions and elected officials are tweaking regulations to help the plan come to life. The resulting discussion is reshaping the zoning, ordinances and language that governs the city’s built environment.
“The old zoning code was never actually was brought into conformance with our last comprehensive plan,” explained Sam Rockwell, the chair of the ten-member Minneapolis Planning Commission. “If you ask the attorney’s office, they will say it was consistent with the Comp Plan, but if you ask anyone behind closed doors, they would say it doesn’t make any sense.”
For example, Rockwell points to the confusing lack of clarity around height limits and density goals in many parts of the city. Under the old rules, the Northeast downtown riverfront simultaneously called for a maximum density of 800 units per acre while setting a height limit of only 56 feet. These mixed messages laid the groundwork for some of Minneapolis’ failed projects, like the 40-story condo tower on Central Avenue which was officially shelved earlier this year.
Rockwell and the other Commissioners are trying to make sure that, this time, the zoning code actually reflects the city’s ambitious vision around housing and development. As a result, the Planning Commission and city staff recently put in two long meetings, totaling over ten hours, working through the changes to the code. One key idea is to use variances to the rules as a “carrot” to attract the right kind of development.
“It’s less about changing the incentives than trying to implement incentives,” explained Rockwell. “In the past, if you look at our commission record, we have granted a lot of Conditional Use Permits (CUPs) and variances for height and density without ever asking for something in return.”
To accomplish this goal, the new Zoning Code has tiered districts — from Interior 1 all the way up to Core 50. At each level, almost like playing a video game, developers can get “premiums,” or bonuses, to Floor Area Ratio or building height that can “level up” a project. The premium system reduces a lot of the previous song and dance around variances and CUPs to a more straightforward formula.
“We’ve standardized the bonuses, and you can get up to 3,” explained Chris Meyer, who represents the Park and Recreation Board on the Commission. “We redistributed our premium budget to incentivize things that were more important. For example, we’ve been trying for a long time to incentivize grocery stores, and staff included recommendation to create a premium for a grocery.”
Last week, commissioners and city planners spent hours debating how those premiums would be allotted. The challenge is to predict how rule changes might affect development proposals, and especially less predictable ways that developers might adapt to the new code. Less beneficial premiums — for example, a bonus for including a skyway — were axed, while other new premiums were added — for example, for including a child care facility.
“How do we create a mechanism that ensures we are actually getting something back from the folks asking for more density or height?” mused Sam Rockwell, who has spent six years on the commission. “Yes, we need more housing, but that’s not the only thing we need. We are facing a climate crisis. We have food deserts. We have an affordability crisis. How do we leverage some of these potential requirements for height to get some of those other things and some of those outer things like sustainability, are things we cannot do except through a condition.”
Revising minimum lot size
Of all the proposed tweaks, none proved more divisive than the conversation around minimum lot sizes. According to Minneapolis planners, these long-standing rules about the size of lot required to construct a new building are on the books to ensure “practical space needs” and to “reinforce existing built form patterns.” But according to some commissioners, they also raise the cost of housing. A recent study from the University of Wisconsin-Madison argues that these kinds of regulations end up making “high amenity” neighborhoods less affordable to people.
“I tried to abolish minimum lot size requirements, but only got them reduced,” admitted Meyer. “I’d like to see the city go a lot farther. For example, whenever affordable housing is built, I would like them to be able to be build as tall as they want, close to transit. Let’s legalize the towers built in those years in the early 70s.”
The desire to boost affordable housing lies at the core of a lot of the changes proposed in the new Comprehensive Plan. The idea makes sense given the housing crisis that has been gripping the Twin Cities, which has seen the cost of housing rise while incomes remained flat, especially for the working-class. Even so, getting rid of minimum lot sizes was a step too far for most commissioners.
“It sounds really good in a sound bite, but in practice, it negates the property rights of 15,000 lots in the city,” explained Allisa Luepke Pier, who spent ten years on the Commission. She argues that the lot size requirements are a key part of the variances system, where “unique circumstances” allow small lots to be grandfathered-in.
“[The change] undermines the goals it’s supposed to be supporting,” said Luepke Pier. “The only people who benefit from this are people holding large enough lots that hey could split them and still have reasonable quality development. This affects setbacks, building coverage, impervious surface coverage. That’s why we have the variance process.”
In the end, the commission agreed to reducing the minimum requirements, which should allow for more flexible housing throughout the city. Other changes that were suggested included rules to incentivize pollinator friendly grasses, and incentives for larger apartments for families.
The Zoning Code’s next stop is the City Council’s Zoning and Planning Committee, chaired by Council Member Jeremy Schroeder, who also sits on the Planning Commission. If they pass there, the city’s zoning changes should meet the technical deadline for implementing the new rules.
At that point, the hours-long meetings about zoning text amendments might begin to wind down, and the city can return to the nitty gritty business of working with developers and debating variances. But if the incentives aren’t working, they’ll come back to tweak them in about a year.
“The funny thing about the comprehensive plan stuff, the process is just so darn time consuming,” said Alissa Luepke Pier. “After this all gets passed, it’ll be back to normal business. It’s supposed to be easier [this time] to amend the comp plan, and so chances are we’re going to see amendments all the time.”