What the fight over Minneapolis 2040 says about Minneapolis 2018

Stop Mpls 2040 sign
MinnPost photo by Andrew Putz
Who, or what areas, should absorb the brunt of that growth to help the city reach its goals around housing, transportation and employment?

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.

Vince Netz, president of the Prospect Park Association
MinnPost photo by Jessica Lee
Vince Netz, president of the Prospect Park Association, shown with designs and models depicting how the neighborhood should grow.
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).”

Comments (13)

  1. Submitted by Alex Schieferdecker on 10/03/2018 - 12:14 pm.

    “It’s basically an opportunity to make sure that anything that happens in Minneapolis is top-down,” [McDonald] said of Minneapolis 2040. “It’s almost Trumpian.”

    It would be hard to characterize Minneapolis 2040 more inaccurately. Restrictive zoning is “top-down.” The city government prohibiting private landowners from building anything besides a single family home on their land is “top-down.”

    To argue instead that loosening those restrictions is the *real* top-down policy is a breathtaking exercise in gaslighting.

  2. Submitted by Thomas Greenspon on 10/03/2018 - 12:28 pm.

    One of the major objections that continuously comes up on the NextDoor forums is about traffic, especially here in Southwest Minneapolis, where major lakes in the middle of everything contribute to impossible traffic already, before any “upzoning” has taken place.

    Especially troublesome is the area at the Northwest portion of Bde Maka Ska. Dean Parkway, West Calhoun, Lake Street and Excelsior Blvd all come together and its a mess for cars, bikes and pedestrians. For whatever reason (and it would be interesting to all of us to understand this), the city refuses to deal with this issue. Apparently, we’re told, that will come later. Many of us are saying we need to deal with the traffic BEFORE we add more people to the area.

    And no, we won’t all be giving up our cars. This is Minnesota. Its cold, many of us are older, and there is no way for us to get out in the winter without our cars, Many of us are furious and know that we’re not being heard. Barbara Greenspon

    • Submitted by Alex Schieferdecker on 10/04/2018 - 08:44 am.

      Barbara,

      The city keeps extensive records of traffic volumes on the streets. The data shows clearly that traffic levels have fallen in recent decades. You can explore the data for yourself at the city’s traffic count interface: http://minneapolis.ms2soft.com/tcds/

      It’s important to keep in mind that while *you* may not give up your car and live car free, many other people would. Minneapolis needs a system that would allow people to make that choice.

  3. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 10/03/2018 - 12:45 pm.

    My experience as a planning commissioner in two different Colorado cities – both of them smaller than Minneapolis – was that zoning is **the** key to everything else, so residents on both sides of the issue are at least becoming active early enough in the process that their voices might actually be heard. No guarantee, but at least the possibility is there.

    Two items occur to me.

    First, this is a moment for citizen involvement, though it could have been – and should have been – much earlier. There are always people whose attitudes approximate “I’ve got mine, anything else is **your** problem.” There are always people who are enthused about change and growth – as long as it’s in someone else’s neighborhood and they don’t personally have to deal with any of the consequences. There are always people who genuinely enjoy change – or want to be part of it (the two are not synonymous).

    The fact that the city’s planning commission is holding its **only** (Can that be true?) public hearing on this matter later this month is astonishing. Public input – to allow for and encourage changes in zoning in order to accommodate economic and population growth, and to allow public officials to hear varying points of view about those plans, on the record – should have been solicited and encouraged months ago, many months ago, in every neighborhood of the city, by both CPED **and** the Planning Commission, if the city and its CPED division hope to convince the public that there has been genuine public input into the 2040 plan. From where I’m sitting, with a single planning commission meeting and only sporadic reporting of neighborhood groups up in arms over some proposal specifics, public input has been minimal, at best.

    Second, it’s my understanding that **any** master plan in Minnesota, no matter what it’s called, is **not** “enforceable.” That is, municipal and/or county-level master plans in Minnesota do **not** have the force of law. That doesn’t necessarily mean they can be violated with impunity, but it **does** mean that, in some circumstances – some good, some not – any master plan can be changed, requiring only approval by the appropriate governing body. I’m assuming, in the case of the 2040 plan, that the Minneapolis City Council could, if it so desired, alter the plan in either minor detail or wholesale change. If a developer can persuade the planning commission and/or the city council that a particular alteration of the plan will benefit a segment of the city deemed desirable by city leaders, the plan can be altered accordingly as long as the city council approves of the change.

    My own planning mantra has been “mixed use, mixed income,” and I’ve not yet seen anything definitive that tells me the 2040 plan addresses those two personal concerns. I live in a neighborhood that is virtually all single-family detached housing, with no commercial zoning except for a single lot, and that housing is – if “average sale price” figures are to be believed – on the low end of the price spectrum. As long as the city remains ethnically and economically segregated – as it is now, in large measure – changes in city structure seem desirable, but it also appears that the city has avoided the hardest work – getting a broad consensus among residents to support the changes being proposed. More needs to be done along those lines.

    • Submitted by Alex Schieferdecker on 10/04/2018 - 08:48 am.

      Ray, you are mistaken about the public engagement process to date. This is the second draft of the 2040 plan. The first draft was produced earlier in the year, and was the subject of an extensive public process, involving meetings all over the city, as well as an interactive website and a portal for submitting comments.

      Over 8,000 comments were submitted online and through comment boxes, and plenty more were voiced at these meetings. All of the written comments are public and can be viewed here: https://minneapolis2040.com/received-public-comments/

      The public process for this plan has been absolutely massive.

  4. Submitted by Pat Terry on 10/03/2018 - 12:54 pm.

    I love how opponents are descibed as being progressives. But their progressivism stops when it involves some actual sacrifice or even the slightest bit of change. They want to fix the affordable housing shortage, but don’t want any of the people who need affordable housing to live anywhere near them.

    All are welcome here. And by “here” they mean in a different part of town, not actually here in their neighborhood.

  5. Submitted by Kurt Anderson on 10/03/2018 - 01:14 pm.

    Between I-94 and the river, between the Plymouth Av and I-35W bridges, how many new housing units have been created over the last 10 years? How many of those are “affordable?” Is this another instance (examples going back to the Civil War) in which the privileged are allowed to buy their way out of participation in an effort for social justice, and the burden falls on the middle and blue collar classes?

  6. Submitted by David Markle on 10/03/2018 - 02:42 pm.

    So far, the many new units in or planned for Prospect Park are sprouting on formerly industrial sites, not on lots occupied by long established homes.

    One must not forget the city’s wish to increase property tax collections: maybe a key factor in its push to demolish the Glendale public housing complex in Prospect Park.

    With that in mind while looking back as well as forward, it’s interesting to contrast the reasoning of the 2040 plan with the city’s past argument of “excessive concentration of race and poverty” as justification for the Holman Project on the north side. Giving those residents housing vouchers while kicking them all out supposedly freed the disadvantaged to make their own housing choices. Meanwhile the city said and did nothing of the kind with respect to heavily subsidized Riverside Plaza (owned by one of the city’s favorite developers) that had and still has a concentration of race and poverty many times higher than Sumner Field and the Holman area. Holman was nothing but a redevelopment project, and the city’s justifications were nothing but sheer hypocrisy.

    The Cedar Riverside neighborhood continues to have an extraordinarily low percentage of home ownership, with almost all its private residential properties locked up in long-term tax shelter limited partnerships.

  7. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 10/04/2018 - 09:51 am.

    The major flaw in this “Zoning” plan is the assumption that new housing will be more affordable. Why would cheap housing emerge from a process wherein everyone doing the building from developers to “flippers” is trying make a much money as possible? Why would a duplex, or triplex in a gentrified neighborhood be more affordable than an apartment off Franklin Ave.?

    As for housing prices, I hate to say it but we’re in the middle of a real estate bubble that’s about to pop because wages and salaries can’t keep up with rising prices… THAT’S the nature of the housing crises. It’s more than a little obtuse to make major plans based on housing prices in the middle of a building boom or bubble that will eventually bust.

    And I hate to say it, but what form of democracy decides that the priorities of future inhabitants are more important than those of current inhabitants? When someone buys a home and makes a life in neighborhood why is it wrong for them to want to preserve the home and neighborhood they’ve made their lives in?

    Meanwhile all I can say is beware of urban “planners” and their “hot” design trends. For them this is all an academic thought experiment, they imagine it’s OK to ask residents who’ve made lives in homes to “sacrifice” something on behalf of their latest trendy “plan”. Being a “progressive” is about elevating the quality of life for everyone, not denigrating one’s own quality of life in order to service city planners. Progressives believe in democratic societies, we don’t complain about community involvement.

    Looks to me like MPLS already HAS a considerable diversity of housing. Almost ALL of the building that’s taken place has been high density apartments and condos. Isn’t diversity in a city about having different types of neighborhoods? Why is it a problem to have some quiet single family home neighborhoods AND higher density noisy busyness? Why would assume that ALL future residents want to live in dense noisy neighborhoods without cars?

    And if transportation is an issue, why isn’t MPLS building out their transit system? Why are the street clogged up with slow moving buses? If you want people to live without cars, you’ve gotta give them a decent alternative, and you can’t expect everyone to jump on a bicycle.

    • Submitted by Reino Paaso on 10/07/2018 - 12:03 pm.

      The affordability part of the plan comes not from new construction but conversion of existing housing. Many people sitting in a large house that they don’t have the room for can convert it to a duplex, triplex or four Plex whatever the law will allow and either sell or rent those unneeded portions. Your neighborhood housing stock will look much like it does now but street traffic will increase and parking will virtually disappear.

  8. Submitted by Karen Sandness on 10/04/2018 - 10:00 am.

    As a resident of Linden Hills–and a renter–I am dismayed by the assumptions behind the many anti-2040 lawn signs in my neighborhood.

    First of all, multifamily housing is not a new thing in the neighborhood. There are already apartment buildings, multifamily condos, lots of duplexes, and even a few fourplexes. Adding a few more will not “damage the character of the neighborhood.”

    What is really damaging character of the neighborhood is the rash of teardowns in which old but perfectly sound single-family houses with period character are being demolished to be replaced by other single-family houses on the Suburban Trophy House model.

    Furthermore, as a renter, I am offended by what seems to be a stereotype about renters, that we’re all irresponsible. No, we just, for whatever reason, do not see home ownership as a viable option for ourselves. In my worst moments, I wonder if my neighbors fear that building more apartments would lead to “those” people moving into the neighborhood in great numbers

    The traffic problem is real, and given the presence of the lakes (I will be trapped in my neighborhood on Twin Cities Marathon day), it will always be tricky. However, apartment dwellers are LESS likely than single-family homeowners to own cars, and if we had a decent bus system in the Twin Cities, one that didn’t have so many “you can’t get there from here” situations, I would be happy to give up my vehicle.

    The parking problem can be alleviated, though, by requiring builders of new multifamily dwellings to provide free off-street parking, either in the back or underground. Too bad Linden Hills doesn’t have the alleys that are found in other parts of the city.

    • Submitted by Michael Hess on 10/04/2018 - 11:57 am.

      The other concern is for residents on or near “Transit corridors” which look an awful lot like any other residential street save the occasional bus, they have been targeted for 4+ stories. And while press coverage says that further from downtown they building height is limited to 4 stories the plan actually preserves the language that allows for a prospective method to go taller if the building helps achieve comprehensive plan goals, so effectively there is no limit save the practical limit of the site and economics. Perhaps that means you can do 5 floors of market rate housing if you add a floor of affordable housing apts? ? I agree that many single family neighborhoods today have small scale multi-family homes scatterd throughout – they don’t in most cases have 4+ story apartment buildings though.

  9. Submitted by Arthur Himmelman on 10/05/2018 - 10:04 am.

    On the matter of “involvement, participation, and engagement” of residents when attempting to modify the plans of government, a French wall poster during the 1968 rebellion makes a simple but central point: You participate, she participates, I participate, they decide.”

    In Minneapolis, government created a shared decision-making power model called the Neighborhood Revitalization Program (NRP). This is not the place to discuss the merits of the NRP, just to note it was replaced with an “engagement” program which has eliminated shared decision-making power called Neighborhood and Community Relations (NCR).

    The process used to share and take comments on the 2040 Plan is a NCR process of “they decide” and not a NRP process with mutual and shared decision-making power. Those not satisfied with the 2040 Plan process may need to demand some form of a NRP model for major City government community change initiatives if the the “top down” process for the 2040 Plan and others is fundamentally unacceptable.

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