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Teardown battle in Minneapolis: A city at war with itself

One side prefers Minneapolis pretty much as it is, but population and tax-base growth are vital to the city’s future.

A home under construction in the 4500 block of Chowen Avenue in Minneapolis.
MinnPost photo by Bill Kelley

For the moment, emotions are running high in the dispute over teardowns in Minneapolis’ most idyllic districts. But even if a moratorium on new home construction in Linden Hills and four other popular southwest neighborhoods is lifted after a few months, as now seems likely, tensions over the broader issues of growth and density are here to stay. Minneapolis, in some sense, is a city at war with itself.

One side prefers the city pretty much as it is. The southwestern neighborhoods, in particular, are deeply satisfied with the status quo, and why not? Quiet tree-lined streets; lakeside views; biking and walking trails; great little restaurants and coffee shops; sailboats set against the backdrop of a distant glassy skyline. Why risk any change that might break the spell?

But there’s another less myopic side, one that sees population and tax-base growth as vital to the city’s future. Without more people and more taxable assets, Minneapolis won’t be able to maintain city services, improve schools and add the transit connections that a successful, competitive city requires. Another way to say it is that the whole city, rich and poor together, cannot move forward without taking maximum advantage of the current “back to the city” real estate trend.

In her campaign last fall, Mayor Betsy Hodges set a goal to add more than 100,000 residents and push the city’s once-shrinking population back up over 500,000. It’s not an outlandish target; rival cities, including Seattle, Denver and Portland, have grown that much in recent years by building dense, urbanized districts that appeal to young residents.

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In theory, there’s room for each side in this skirmish to have its way. After all, a key element of the growth strategy is to add density mainly along commercial corridors with transit service so that the city’s established single-family neighborhoods can be left undisturbed. In practice, however, it’s not quite so simple, as the new mayor and council are finding out.

That’s where teardowns come into play. The appetite for city living hasn’t been this strong in many decades, and the southwest neighborhoods hold special appeal. A portion of the housing stock, especially in the far southwest, consists of postwar two-bedroom ramblers that are too small for modern tastes and built on lots that are more valuable than the houses. These are ripe for rebuilding and, if you drive the streets south and west of Lake Harriet, you’ll see hundreds of new infill homes that have popped up in recent years. A few of them are too large, and a few are downright ugly. But the vast majority of them are well designed and fit nicely into their surroundings.

“It’s wonderful news for Minneapolis that people want to invest and live in the city again,” said Caren Dewar, director of the Urban Land Institute-Minnesota. “But how to manage all this will be an ongoing challenge for the city because this is the direction that the market wants to go.”

The value of these teardowns is clear; they add tax base that the city desperately needs. How much? Well, just across the city line in Edina, officials have been struggling to manage a wave of teardowns — more than 280 in the last three years — over the objections of neighbors who hate the construction and the scale of the new homes. But the added value of those 280 new homes exceeds the taxable value of the entire Southdale shopping mall, according to Edina City Manager Scott Neal.

So, the stakes are high for Minneapolis. And that’s why the moratorium launched by new 13th Ward Council Member Linea Palmisano may have been hasty and shortsighted. Is it wise for Minneapolis to hang up a sign that, in effect, warns investors to stay away? Is it smart to encourage people to build their new homes in the suburbs instead?

Excessive power

In political terms, the moratorium reflects the excessive power that a few disgruntled and fearful neighbors can exert in Minneapolis, especially with a new mayor and council still feeling its way. Yes, the growth side has won many battles. Coming out of the Great Recession, the city has led the metro area in construction permits and new housing units.

Linea Palmisano
MinnPost file photo by Terry Gydesen
Linea Palmisano

But the status quo side has gained momentum recently. It almost certainly has succeeded in stopping the Southwest light rail project, the largest transit project ever proposed for the metro area. And the moratorium, although minor by comparison, further illustrates the built-in advantage that the status quo enjoys: It is an actual constituency; it can vote and it can complain loudly to elected officials, even about petty details and imaginary consequences. By contrast, the new 100,000 people that Hodges hopes to attract have no voice at City Hall. No one shows up to speak for them or for the long-range benefits they could bring.

It’s not that some of the complaints over teardowns are without merit. Jason Wittenberg, Minneapolis’ acting planning director, acknowledges that there have been serious problems on some construction sites: debris dumped on neighbors’ property; improper placement of dumpsters and portable toilets; problems with drainage and water table; disregard for designated work hours, and even some possible cheating on building heights.

“The most urgent point in all this is about construction site management,” he said. “Council Member Palmisano is right when she says that crews ‘should build like they live next door.’ They should have more consideration for neighbors. It feels like the communication isn’t what it should be.”

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Lessons from Edina

The question is whether that merits a moratorium, or whether the city could fix all of that by beefing up its enforcement while construction continues. As a first step, the city should consult with Edina, which last year enacted a new system to deal with similar complaints.

Neal, the Edina city manager, offered this advice: It’s more about emotion than anything else. People love their neighborhoods, and that’s a good thing. The prospect of change incites fear and suspicion. It’s important to have one point-of-contact person to eliminate surprises and to tightly manage the site, making sure that the neighbors are informed and that the crews follow the rules — every day. Both sides — the contractors and the neighbors — need predictability, he said. You can’t just pass rules and expect contractors to comply.

Edina’s new emphasis on communication and enforcement seems to be working, although the suburb could use more than just one enforcer/coordinator.

Two homes in the 4500 block of Abbott Avenue under construction.
MinnPost photo by Bill Kelley
Two homes in the 4500 block of Abbott Avenue under construction.

As for complaints about the scale of new homes, Wittenberg said that Minneapolis will review changes it made in 2007 that reduced heights and expanded the space between homes. Edina’s new 30-foot height limit and sideyard regulations match closely the scale that Minneapolis set seven years ago.

Truth is, modern lifestyles demand homes larger than those built 60 years ago. Unless the city wants to discourage a renewal of its housing stock, it must, within reasonable limits, allow larger homes. Those homes will cast shadows. A few trees will need to be cut, although that should be kept to a minimum. Skilled architects can use design to give new homes a less obtrusive profile. Those techniques should be emphasized before construction begins.

Warning from San Francisco

But for neighbors to stop construction altogether is akin to shooting themselves in the foot, as San Francisco has discovered. With the best of intentions to preserve the city’s character, residents there have fought nearly every effort to renew and expand housing and grow the population. The result: some of the highest property taxes, living costs and housing prices in the nation — and thousands of young people who want to live in the city but can’t.

“The city was largely ‘protected’ from change. But in so doing, we put out the fire with gasoline,” Gabriel Metcalf, a Bay Area planning advocate, wrote recently in Atlantic magazine.

Minneapolis isn’t San Francisco. Still, it faces formidable resistance to the mayor’s laudable goals of growing population and tax base. Political leaders must gather the courage to explain to neighbors that NIMBYism delivers a self-inflicted wound. As for teardowns, the city needs to establish a much better system of communicating and enforcing the rules without slowing the pace of renewal.