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If not here, then where? Opposition to NE zoning changes another hurdle for adding housing in Minneapolis

Council Member Michael Rainville and a group of Northeast Minneapolis residents are trying to get 20 homes on Van Buren Street downzoned, restricting the size of apartment buildings that can be built.

Open land along Central Avenue.
Open land along Central Avenue.
MinnPost photo by Bill Lindeke

Raise your hand if you live in Minneapolis and your home is on a unique block. 

(I’m assuming everyone’s hand is up right now.)

The paradox of individuality is that everyone and every place is unique if you think about them for long enough. And if every place is unique, where do you draw the line about what parts of the city merit special rules and special scrutiny? 

That’s the drama unfolding on a pedestrian stretch of Van Buren Street in Northeast Minneapolis, where a fight has broken out about the scale of housing along busy Central Avenue. 

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In response to two recent development proposals, Council Member Michael Rainville and a group of Northeast Minneapolis residents are trying to get 20 homes on Van Buren Street downzoned, restricting the size of apartment buildings that can be built next to Central Avenue. According to the city staff report supporting the application, the area offers a set of “unique circumstances.” 

It’s an important debate for the future of Minneapolis because reinstating restrictions on housing creates a slippery slope that undermines change anywhere in the city. If uniqueness becomes a downzoning criteria, it could reinstall the inequitable regulations that created the Twin Cities’ housing shortage in the first place.   

Plans vs. implementation

While the end to single-family-only zoning got the lion’s share of the Minneapolis 2040 Plan’s media attention, the citywide upzoning was the more meaningful impact of the plan, which passed in 2019 on a 12-1 City Council vote. Along transit corridors all through the city, in place of the restrictive midcentury zoning categories, the Minneapolis 2040 plan installed less-restrictive rules that allowed a wider variety of housing. Each of the new zoning categories — interior, corridor, and transit — permit new housing to be constructed by right in Minneapolis, and most major transit routes received “corridor” designation. Over time, it’s this reform that will give Minneapolis a chance to be the first U.S. city to build its way out of the housing shortage.

A planned 20-unit apartment building, top, and a 65-unit building on Van Buren Street.
A planned 20-unit apartment building, top, and a 65-unit building on Van Buren Street.
The truth is that, even when a plan is passed, urban planning fights never really end. Plans are only as impactful as their implementation, and putting a line on a map in a document is not the same as constructing a new transit route, striping a bike lane, or digging a foundation for an apartment building.

“Could you just summarize the uniqueness of this site compared to other corridors in the city?” Council Member Michael Rainville asked city staff at Monday’s planning commission meeting.

“The unique actors that we identified were the fact that you have the viaduct there, which means the parcels fronting along Central aren’t actually connected to the street, and we have a situation where along the street we have an open space designation,” explained Jim Voll, who manages a community planning section for the Department of Community Planning and Economic Development (CPED).

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In other words, the corner of Central and Broadway is elevated, and you sometimes have to access the sidewalk via a short staircase. Meanwhile, there’s a small grass area along Central Avenue that’s owned by the city, not an official city park but a spot that serves as a nice place to walk a dog.

To my eyes, the staff report supporting the Van Buren Street downsizing seems a bit tortured. At the very least, it’s a reversal of earlier opinions from Minneapolis’ CPED department. 

When the first Van Buren Street development proposal was before the Commission back in May, the staff at the time insisted that the Corridor 6 zoning was appropriate for the area. CPED’s planning manager, Kim Holien, testified that “This area was mapped Corridor 6 due to its proximity to high-frequent transit routes, the same as the rest of Central Avenue and other similar corridors. We do not believe that the Corridor 6 designation here was a mistake or a mapping error.”

It’s hard to think of anything that’s changed since May, and it’s a challenge to square that opinion with the “unique circumstances” in this month’s staff report. The consensus around the need for new housing in Minneapolis seems less stable than it did a few years ago.

What is and isn’t ‘NIMBY’

“NIMBY,” or “not in my back yard”, is a term I rarely use in conversation because I find it too reductive. It often takes what are often complex concerns and reduces them to a seemingly reactionary position that most people understand to mean as “saying no to any change.”

That’s a mischaracterization. Taken literally, NIMBYism isn’t an anti-change philosophy, it’s about exceptionalism. The way it’s expressed in public testimony almost always involves the critical use of the word “but”; in other words, “I’m ok with X, Y, or Z, but just not here, not on my street.” 

This thought kept recurring to me during this week’s Planning Commission meeting, as a dozen residents came to the podium in City Hall in opposition to zoning for more housing. In many cases, the speakers insisted that they supported the Minneapolis 2040 plan: “I don’t have any opposition to the 2040 plan” one testified; “we are not here to fight the 2040 plan,” said another. Instead, the  issue to them was that Van Buren Street is unique, not like other streets in the city where apartment buildings might belong.

It’s that rhetorical move, rather than reactionary opposition, that’s the real essence of NIMBYism. 

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The problem is this: Which street in Minneapolis is not unique? Every Minneapolis neighborhood is special in some way, perhaps close to a park, or featuring an unusually designed house, or boasting an apartment where Bob Dylan once crashed on the couch. A precedent around a vague notion of uniqueness would give any group of Minneapolis neighbors license to fight new housing, taking Minneapolis back into the midcentury world of height limits. 

Van Buren Street is pleasant enough, and I love the Vegas Lounge which sits a block away. But despite the concrete wall of the Broadway viaduct, these blocks are no different from any others along Central Avenue. As city staff testified toward the end of the meeting, giving these homes a pass to enact restrictive new housing would set a precedent that could undermine the city’s ambitious zoning reforms passed just three years ago. 

An ill omen for the housing shortage

In the end, the Planning Commission could neither support or deny the proposal, reaching a 4-4 impasse that sends the effort along to the Minneapolis City Council’s Business, Inspections, Housing, and Zoning Committee. Chaired by long-time Council Member Lisa Goodman, a strong City Council ally of Rainville, it seems likely that a faction of the City Council will push to approve the downzoning.

If they do, it would be an ill omen for Minneapolis’ chance to reduce its housing shortage. The fact remains that this block alongside Central Avenue is suited perfectly for more density, right next to what will soon be some of the best high-frequency transit service in the entire city. 

If a new apartment building doesn’t belong here, then where?