On Wednesday, a who’s who of Minneapolis urbanism gathered at the Walker Art Center stage to hear a panel discussion. It was the first of three talks put on by the Minneapolis Foundation called Abundant Cities, orchestrated personally by former Mayor R.T. Rybak. The lively discussion, moderated by Adair Mosley, was a back-and-forth about key downtown issues: working from home, COVID, affordable housing, and the role of real estate capitalism.
The key point for me was when panelists began talking about the contrast between 20th century specialization – separating areas for work and play, home and business – with what has become the dominant trend of the 2020s of blending things together.
“It lies at the intersection of multiple ways of thinking,” explained artist and facilitator Gabrielle Grier, when asked about the future of Downtown Minneapolis. “We can’t think about restaurants as exclusive from cultural experiences or entertainment. We’re talking about hybrids. Things that used to be mutually exclusive, how do we fuse them?”
Cities in general, and downtowns specifically, have been organized for too long to be specialized places. “Central business districts” are for 9 to 5 office workers, and “residential neighborhoods” are for domestic quietude; never the twain shall meet. The moral of the Walker Art discussion was that those barriers are breaking down.
“Pandemics are accelerants,” said University of Minnesota architecture professor Tom Fisher, who recently wrote a book on how disease outbreaks change cities. “Almost everything we experienced existed before COVID. We had Zoom before COVID. We had telemedicine, we had telecommuting, we had all these things, but they were marginal parts of our economy. Pandemics make the marginal the dominant; we’ve been accelerated decades into the future.”
Adapting to change
The lesson for a city like Minneapolis is that, if cities are flexible, they adapt to change. But there’s a great example of how that kind of change is playing out in Minneapolis right now, and it’s not flattering.
Here’s the situation. When the Minneapolis 2040 Plan passed back in 2018, most onlookers thought it was a done deal. The Comprehensive Plan was adopted on a 12-1 vote, and all of a sudden everything had changed in Minneapolis. Right?
In reality, it takes years to make sweeping planning changes, and that’s even before you throw in the litigation brought forward by ostensibly environmental groups. (Note that the Minneapolis chapter of the Audubon society withdrew their support of the lawsuit two weeks ago.)
In general, zoning controls two separate things: the size and scale of buildings (including how much of the “lot” they occupy), and the use that occurs there. Usually those two things are considered separately, which is why the first step of the Minneapolis 2040 implementation was creating zoning conformity for height and scale. While this process can sometimes be a bit confusing and cause conflict, it’s relatively straightforward.
The second step involves the land uses, which quickly gets complicated. Right now, Minneapolis is at the tail end of a discussion about its Land Use Rezoning Study (LURS). This involves rethinking rules around what, in every U.S. city (except Houston), is called “Euclidean zoning.” Named after a 1926 Supreme Court case involving an Ohio suburb, the principle is to separate land uses that might be “incompatible.”
Today’s resulting “land use tables” resemble a complex orchestral score. For example, under the classic trio of commercial, industrial, and residential zones, many uses are allowed or disallowed. The end results are elaborate controls over uses are acceptable in which areas of the city.
Right now, Minneapolis city staff are leading a rare change to its land use policies. Staff have spent over a year shifting land use allowances to fit the values outlined in the comprehensive plan, which specifically encourages things like health, equity, and affordable housing. In this case, the idea is to take the antiquated 1990s-era code and update it for the next generation, ensuring that restrictions match Minneapolis’ future needs.
To my mind, the LURS changes don’t go far enough, especially in a post-COVID environment where fundamental assumptions are being routinely upended. For example, under the proposed changes, the majority of Minneapolis’ land area would be classified as “urban neighborhood.” In these zones, non-residential uses would be simply banned. The only exceptions would be institutions like schools, libraries, or churches.
The new rules overly limit where business activity can take place, which seems like a mistake in 2023. If you want to start a home enterprise, for example, you’re out of luck if you want to have more than one customer at a time. Remove the possibility of commercial activity from half the city’s land area means far fewer pop-up stores, coffee shops, or any other creative idea that we can’t predict today. That quickly limits the potential of the over 400,000 people that make Minneapolis home.
In 2019, the gradual tweaks of the LURS study might have been a good compromise, increasing the theoretical density of a neighborhood while maintaining its land use restrictions, but a lot has changed in the last three-plus years. But in a world where most former commuters are logging hours from their living rooms, why not let zoning change with the times?
Businesses in formerly residential neighborhoods make a lot more sense when nobody is going into the office. Walking in your neighborhood to a coffee shop or tax prep or chiropractor is far more appealing. Running a business from a basement or garage, or turning a large home into a commercial space, seems more normal.
In the post-COVID environment, a blanket ban on flexible land uses seems like a missed opportunity. A better solution might be to make more uses conditional, where the Planning Commission and City Council can approve them one-by-one, perhaps imposing considered “conditions.” (As a former St. Paul Planning Commissioner, I assure you that this process is almost always thoughtful.)
Becoming more flexible was the dominant theme of this week’s Abundant Cities discussion, as every speaker agreed that loosening restrictions and adopting hybrid attitudes will be a dominant trend.
In particular, it might be over for the work vs. home dichotomy, the era of urbanism where homes were quiet refuges away from our workplaces, and we commuted back and forth between the two. For many people, that’s not happening, and likely never will. Our cities should try to get ahead of the curve, anticipating social changes sweeping through our lives.
“When we’re thinking about collaboration, who is doing that?” Grier asked the Walker audience. “(We have) these new hybrid buzzwords are coming up, like enter-education, eater-tainment, and resi-mercial. Well, how do we fuse it? If I’m in an office, do I want it to feel like an office anymore? I don’t know. Maybe I want it to feel like my house.”
It would be nice if our zoning code matched what’s coming down the social and technological pipe.