For Lisa McDonald, the problems with Minneapolis 2040 were enough to pull her out of retirement. From its approach to housing to the way city planners released it to the public, the flaws in the city’s proposed comprehensive plan update were just too big — and potentially long lasting — for the former City Council member to remain uninvolved.
“It’s basically an opportunity to make sure that anything that happens in Minneapolis is top-down,” she said of Minneapolis 2040. “It’s almost Trumpian.”
McDonald is now helping lead a campaign against the long-term plan for development, part of a wave of activism related to the city’s future — there are groups organized both for and against Minneapolis 2040 — that’s unlike any before.
The plan’s authors, of Minneapolis’ Community Planning and Economic Development (CPED), say the number of people involved in Minneapolis 2040 is at an all-time high because its groundbreaking proposals. Few places in the United States have considered such comprehensive zoning changes, particularly those affecting neighborhoods with only single-family homes.
The stakes around development are high. The city is in the midst of a construction boom that has seen building permits exceed $1 billion this year alone, and regional leaders say it’s a critical time for deciding how and what Minneapolis builds as the city grows. And key in the debate is this: Who, or what areas, should absorb the brunt of that growth to help the city reach its goals around housing, transportation and employment?
“I think most of my constituents agree with the overall values of the draft plan’s focus on race equity, environmental sustainability, safer streets and housing affordability,” said Council President Lisa Bender in an email early last week. “But there are differing viewpoints on the specifics, often based on life circumstances and experiences.”
‘One step’ toward building access to affordable housing
Nicole Salica began campaigning for Minneapolis 2040 after feeling the effects of a housing crisis firsthand.
She lived in the San Francisco Bay Area for nearly a decade, working a decent job, until the region’s rising living costs reached a point of no return in 2015. The Twin Cities seemed like a great — and affordable — place for a fresh start, she said.
Renting a space in a century-old building in the Elliot Park neighborhood, she’s now comfortable as far as living costs go. Her rent is reasonable, in part, she said, because the building doesn’t include parking, and that’s fine because she doesn’t have a car.
“I want everyone to have the same access to affordable housing that I’m currently enjoying,” Salica said of her activism, which entails pushing city planners to allow multifamily housing everywhere as part of a group called Neighbors for More Neighbors. “Every neighborhood should have a variety of housing.”
Across the spectrum of activists, Minneapolis 2040’s proposal to allow multifamily housing — first fourplexes, then triplexes — in every neighborhood in the city has generated the most debate. The city’s long-range planning director, Heather Worthington, has said that, in general, the proposal aims to diversify housing citywide and reverse some of the damage from historical exclusionary zoning policies.
“There was redlining here, and that kept people of color from having the same resources and opportunities as white people,” said Salica. “We see the 2040 plan as one step — one important step — in reducing that.”
The idea is a hot one right now in urban planning. In recent years, cities such as Austin, Portland and Seattle have considered similar changes to allow for more density, sometimes called “upzoning.” All have faced pushback from residents who call it a misguided approach to solving housing problems.
Each city is at a different stage of the process. Portland is in the middle of weighing the pros and cons of allowing duplexes and triplexes on nearly all areas currently zoned for single-family homes, according to Dan Bertolet, of Seattle’s Sightline Institute. Vancouver B.C., meanwhile, just made it legal for duplexes to be located almost everywhere in the city.
“Single-family homes are not affordable for many residents who might desire home ownership, but more options to buy a portion of a duplex, triplex or fourplex may provide more access across racial and generational lines,” reads one of the more than 10,000 public comments submitted to CPED about Minneapolis 2040.
The window is closing for the people to weigh in on Minneapolis 2040, the latest version of which went online Friday. The Minneapolis Planning Commission will host its only public hearing on Oct. 29 before forwarding recommendations to the City Council, which will hold the last public hearing in mid-November.
Does the solution fit the problem?
Right now, about three-fourths of the city’s population live in neighborhoods zoned primarily for single-family homes or small multifamily housing, according to land-use maps and Census data. In those areas, there are just two rental units for every three owner-occupied homes.
Meanwhile, in areas with more dense residential zoning — including downtown, Loring Park, Uptown, Cedar Riverside, Elliot Park, Marcy-Holmes, North Loop, Stevens Square, West Calhoun and Whittier — rental units outnumber owner-occupied homes by almost a 4 to 1 margin.
McDonald, who owns a house in East Harriet in southwest Minneapolis, said her push against Minneapolis 2040 is not so much tied to where she lives but rather is about maintaining the city’s current pattern of growth. Some people prefer to live in busy, dense areas, such as downtown. But people like her want a different environment.
“I think the city has an extensive housing crisis, and I think it has an affordable housing crisis, but those things are solved in different ways,” she said. “Just building triplexes — that’s not going to solve the affordable housing problem.”
The debate over long-term development between people like McDonald, who helped found the group called Minneapolis For Everyone, and activists on the opposite side is playing out in neighborhood forums, meetings with city planners or officials and online chats on Nextdoor.com.
“I’ve gotten beautiful, handwritten cards, pleading that this is going to be something that ruins the city,” said Council Member Linea Palmisano, who represents southwest Minneapolis, in an interview last week. “These are old ladies that send greeting cards with their feelings on them. They’re well-read, sign up to all of the progressive things for our city. They don’t understand how the city will achieve (its goals around housing affordability).”
Palmisano said that when introducing the comprehensive plan’s first draft in March, city planners didn’t effectively explain how the idea to change residential zoning in all neighborhoods would improve the city’s housing market for all residents. “People are generally willing to accept change — they may even have lawn signs in their yard about it — if they’re able to understand why we’re making those changes,” she said.
Others have also been critical of city planners’ process. Timothy Keane, a lifelong Minneapolis resident, said Minneapolis 2040 doesn’t include enough data to support its ideas, while Mary Pattock, who has owned a house in southwest Minneapolis for almost 50 years and has a thick portfolio of activism work, called out the debate for being too divisive. “Anyone who doesn’t get on board with their plan, for any reason at all, is racist,” she wrote. “Homeowners against renters, young versus older, bikers versus drivers, parts of the city against each other.”
Controlling the conversation
Few people outside CPED and elected officials have spent as much time thinking about the comprehensive plan as a team of volunteers in the city’s Prospect Park neighborhood, which sits along the Mississippi River just east of the University of Minnesota.
Poring over maps, studying construction permits and seeking input from retired architects, a group of about 100 volunteers with the Prospect Park Association has spent hundreds of hours over the past year trying to decide if, or how, the neighborhood should grow.
The work culminated in 45 pages of suggestions for city planners; no other neighborhood group has completed such an extensive report to guide Minneapolis 2040, according to Vince Netz, president of the association.
With swaths of underdeveloped land teasing developers in the north part of the neighborhood, high-rise apartments drawing new, young renters to University Avenue and century-old houses with long-time owners at its core, Prospect Park is a petri dish for the city’s questions over housing. It’s added more than 1,720 people since 2000, while building 640 new homes to accommodate them, U.S. Census data show.
Though renters make up a majority of the population — and most residents are under the age of 24 (considering the neighborhood’s proximity to campus) — longtime homeowners dominate the neighborhood discussion about redevelopment, Netz said.
They’re the ones who show up to meetings and study new construction projects the most. They have a personal stake in the area — they built it, he said — and worry that density will threaten its prized architectural history.
“It’s very skewed; long-term homeowners and residents vs. newer residents,” he said of the debate. “Even though they’re highly educated people, politically liberal … and they understand all of these issues, they don’t want their community to change.”
The tension is not just around Minneapolis 2040. Plans to surround a former factory, the Art and Architecture building, with a massive complex of condos, apartments, businesses and offices, for example, now has the neighborhood split over new vs. historic buildings.
“When we’re talking about these 2040 documents, they’re fluffy, pie in the sky. But when the rubber hits the road,” people feel nostalgic and that their livelihoods are threatened, Netz said.
Not a step-by-step set of instructions
Concerns over aesthetics are also at play in the fight over Minneapolis 2040. Some critics of the plan worry the plan could mean taller, bigger buildings that look cheap or out of place in their neighborhoods. (Under the plan, triplexes would have to be the same height as buildings around them.)
To address some of those complaints, the plan’s latest version — which the Minneapolis Planning Commission could recommend to the City Council to change — lowers maximum heights for buildings near some public transit routes (from six stories to four) and minimizes the size of structures (from three stories to 2.5) on busy streets where alleys separate two rows of buildings. The affected neighborhoods include all of those north of Lowry Avenue and south of 38th Street.
But the long-term plan does not enact policies one way or another. In whatever shape the City Council adopts the plan before the end of the year, it’ll need to update Minneapolis zoning code and land-use maps separately to match it.
“It’s not a step-by-step-by-step instruction for 10 years or the next 30 years. It’s a guidance document. It’s a high-level, overarching framework,” said principal city planner Paul Mogush. “But it is used every single day, and how it’s most often used is to react to proposals (on new development).”