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Growing pains: As Minneapolis pushes for greater housing density, more neighborhoods push back

Even those who agree with the city’s oft-stated goals say it doesn’t do a good job of balancing those interests with the concerns of those who want to preserve various neighborhoods’ character.

The North Loop was long considered especially receptive to development.
MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan

Francesco Parisi moved the Minneapolis nine years ago to take a professorship at the University of Minnesota Law School. Six years later, he moved into the city’s North Loop neighborhood because it reminded him of cities in his native Italy.

“I love history and the North Loop was going to give me that feeling of belonging that I was longing for,” Parisi said.

But when he found out, thanks to a petition, that a residential project on Washington Avenue would rise to 10 stories — taller than the existing stock of buildings in the area — and that it had been approved by the neighborhood association, he got active. He ran for a seat on the North Loop Neighborhood Association board.

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The developer eventually retreated, and a different project by a different developer is now being planned for the parcel. But the experience led Parisi to believe there was a disconnect between neighbors and the North Loop Neighborhood Association, which — like other neighborhood associations in the city — is given a prominent say in reviewing new developments.

As with other Minneapolis residents who have opposed specific projects, Parisi says he supports the city’s oft-stated goals of increased population and increased density. But, like many others in the city, he thinks the city doesn’t always do a good job of balancing those goals with the interests of those who also want to maintain the character and history of the city’s neighborhoods.

Et tu, North Loop?

The North Loop was long considered especially receptive to development. New residential and commercial projects rarely displaced current tenants. Instead, historic buildings were repurposed and vacant lots were filled.

And redevelopment delivered exactly the amenities that growth and density advocates said it would: more restaurants, more bars, more retail, more people on the street. The result: hardly a month goes by these days that the area isn’t listed on some magazine’s or website’s list of hottest neighborhoods.

But over the last year, three projects in the neighborhood have drawn opposition. Of those, one was approved by the Minneapolis City Council anyway, one has been blocked (for now, at least) and one was withdrawn by the developer. Now, the area — once considered wide open for growth and density — is starting to display the same tensions that have surfaced in the St. Anthony Main area and have been common in Uptown and Linden Hills.

Growth and density win broad support when they are theoretical but attract passionate opposition when they are manifested in specific projects with specific heights, shading, traffic and parking (or lack thereof). “People recognize the benefits in the abstract, but when it’s a block away they’re less happy about it,” said Nick Magrino, Minneapolis Mayor Betsy Hodges’ representative on the Planning Commission.

Francesco Parisi

Francesco Parisi

Council Member Lisa Bender, who chairs the council’s zoning and planning committee and serves as the council’s representative on the planning commission, has led much of the council’s efforts around density. “Most people have chosen to live in this community because of the amenities that come with having the population density that is here today,” she said.

Density in urban areas also fits within the city’s environmental goals, says Bender: it grows population in areas that already have infrastructure, reduces sprawl and allows transit to be more successful. And more households and more people sharing the property tax burden can at least keep annual levy increases lower, she says.

There are social justice reasons as well. The creation of more housing, along with targeted investments in public and subsidized housing, may be the best way to increase affordability and reduce financial displacement.

What’s more, says Bender, every residential project approved eases pressure on a tight housing market. And it isn’t just downtown and near-downtown multi-family towers. Other wards are also being looked to for more density, especially along transit corridors. And single-family neighborhoods have come into play as well, with changes to rules on accessory dwelling units and duplexes as well as reduced multi-family parking requirements for buildings near good transit service. “These are small changes but these all add housing units to our city,” Bender said during a May meeting of the Taxation Committee. “We are making sure that in 10 years we do not become a housing-crisis city like San Francisco or Seattle.”

On the council, Council Member Jacob Frey often finds himself in the crosshairs of the issue. His Ward 3 is where much of the city’s residential development has been occurring. In the downtown part of his ward, there is less pushback from residents. But in other parts of his ward — in places in and around Dinkytown, Northeast and now in the North Loop — each new proposal is drawing vocal opposition.

“Anytime you confront the general, you have to get specific,” Frey said. There are neighborhoods of his ward where historic protections, zoning and comprehensive plans all apply — and sometimes clash. Frey says he tries to listen to concerns but with an underlying philosophy that Minneapolis will be a better place with a larger population and more density. “Picture the cities you love to visit,” Frey said. “The streets are teeming with excitement, there’s diversity of people, the storefronts are thumping. You simply don’t get that level of activity without a population base to support it.”

All of that contributes to a more-dynamic economy, he said. “But let’s be honest,” Frey said. “There’s pushback for everything. Sometimes the only thing people hate more than the status quo is any change at all.”

But Frey said he is pleased that most in the city agree on one thing: “We’ve gotten to the point where support for a surface parking lot is no longer cool.”

Growth as a ‘value’

Growing the city’s population and increasing the number of jobs in the city involves both politics and policy. Mayor Betsy Hodges campaigned in 2013 on her wish to see the city get back over 500,000 in population, something it hadn’t seen since the mid-1950s.

But that’s more than a wish. The Met Council draws up a regional planning guide, currently called Thrive MSP 2040, following each U.S. Census. The plan includes population and employment forecasts for each local jurisdiction. Local plans must be demonstrate how they will absorb forecasted growth.

The last estimate by the council put Minneapolis’ 2015 population at 410,939. Council forecasts estimate it will reach 439,100 by 2030 and 459,200 by 2040. At the same time, the number of households in the city, currently 163,540, is expected to reach 194,000 by 2030 and 204,000 by 2040.

This growth expectation reflects what demographers see as a return of growth to the urban center. “Minneapolis and St. Paul experienced minimal household growth from 1980 to 2010, but have seen significant building since the end of the recent recession,” states the Thrive MSP 2040 report. “From 2010 to 2040, the council is forecasting that these cities will be the top two in the region for household growth, capturing 17 percent of net new households, 10 times their share of the last three decades.”

And Minneapolis is okay with that. “Growth” is one of six values that are to guide city decisions (along with equity, safety, health, vitality and connectedness).

Today, the city is in a bit of a boom, with cranes marking construction sites across downtown and in the near-downtown areas north, west and south. As a result, Magrino says, Minneapolis no longer needs to use incentives like tax increment financing to spur development. But the boom also means it has fewer tools to target development to underdeveloped areas. Rather than build in places such as Bassett Creek Valley or the Southeast Industrial Area, developers “want to build where the amenities already are. They don’t want to take a chance.”

“Which makes sense,” he said. “It’s their money.”

Confusing, even for the well-informed

Minneapolis has a comprehensive plan to guide development (though it’s on the cusp of a major rewrite). It also has underlying zoning plans that are adopted by the city as well as small area plans drafted by neighborhood associations.

Developers often make informal presentations to city staff and council members to begin a process of understanding what is required of them.

The city is required by state law to act on the development applications within 60 days, though a 60-day extension is permitted. A series of notices to the public are required before the project goes before the Planning Commission, which can decide some things on its own, and make reccomendations to council on others.

Projects in historic districts also have to undergo review by the Heritage Preservation Commission, which issues a certificate of appropriateness before such projects can move on to the Planning Commission. It is there that variances from zoning requirements — items such as lot size, heights and parking standards — are granted. The commission can also issue conditional use permits that allow developers to exceed what they can build “by right.” Finally, the commission tries to assure that development is compatible with nearby properties, neighborhood character and adopted city plans.

“Even for a very smart person, it can be confusing,” Magrino said. “You could have a zoning district, then over that the [comprehensive] plan guidelines and then, in a historic district, guidelines for setbacks and height.”

Even before projects reach the heritage and planning commissions, however, the neighborhood association where a project is located will usually have discussed and voted on it, forwarding its recommendations to the commissions and the council. Often, the associations, who the city requires developers to notify, respond to pressure from opponents of projects, who have gone door-to-door organizing other neighbors.

Even so, neighborhood associations have no legal role in these approvals, and developers aren’t required to meet with the neighborhoods or listen to their suggestions. That said, smart developers do work with neighborhood associations to head off potential opposition.

All that process means there are several opportunities for residents to weigh in on a given project. Still, most projects that are subject to public hearings are approved in some form, and many more flow through council via consent agendas with little comment. Even the most controversial plans have supporters, even if they tend not to be as passionate as opponents.

“People are very emotional about where they live,” Bender said, “especially when they own their homes. That’s reasonable. It makes people very risk averse.”

Neighborhood associations: too powerful — or tone deaf?

Kit Richardson is an architect who co-founded the development company Schafer Richardson in 1995. The company has developed both new construction and historic renovation residential projects, mostly in Minneapolis. But he ran into neighborhood opposition over his initial plans to redevelop the block where Nye’s Polonaise Room stood for decades.

Kit Richardson

Kit Richardson

Even though the neighborhood council approved a plan for a 29-story apartment tower that incorporated the historic buildings at its base, neighbors objected to the height and the shadows it would cast, especially on the historic church next door. Rather than fight for the height he thought was appropriate — and allowed by city guidelines — Richardson’s company changed the design to six stories.

“We lost the support of the politicians,” Richardson recalls.

He is critical of the city’s procedures for project approval, saying it creates the exact things that developers fear: uncertainty and surprise. “It’s rather hit and miss,” Richardson said. “It really depends on the neighborhood associations. They, generally speaking, have a lot of power.”

Before the Great Recession, Richardson worked closely with the Marcy Holmes Association on a project incorporating and surrounding the Pillsbury A Mill. The association ok’d greater heights for the project in return for other amenities, though ultimately the recession killed the plan.

Other associations don’t work as well, Richardson said. And then there are those neighborhoods where opponents come into the process after the association committee has spent many hours considering a development project, a process Richardson summarized as: “We beg to differ. We don’t agree. We don’t go to the meetings. But nonetheless we’re against everything.”

The former Nye's Polonaise Room shown in a photo from 2014.

MinnPost photo by Corey Anderson
The former Nye’s Polonaise Room shown in a photo from 2014.

Neighbors objected to the 29-story apartment tower proposed for the Nye's site.

Schafer Richardson
Neighbors objected to the 29-story apartment tower proposed for the Nye’s site.

The approved six-story design for the former Nye's site.

Elness Swenson Graham Architects
The approved six-story design for the former Nye’s site.

Parisi disagrees with that characterization. He thinks many neighborhood associations don’t do a good enough job of giving residents adequate notice about decisions that are to be made. He said that the meeting on a new proposal for development on a parking lot on North Washington Avenue came with less than 48 hours notice.

“The problem is the neighborhood association is tone deaf,” Parisi said.

How to ease tensions

Barbara Glaser is a Minnesota native who is gradually moving back after spending much of her professional career in Saratoga, New York. She said she and her husband always stayed at the Nicollet Island Inn when visiting, and she chose to live in St. Anthony Main for its history and its walkability. She said she thought the neighborhood was protected by historic guidelines and the city plans that directed high rises to the downtown side of the river.

“I love the scale of it. I love proximity to the river, I love that the old buildings — that the Nye’s buildings — are being incorporated into new so we can keep some of the character of the old even while building new density,” she said. “But I also love the story. It’s a great story.”

Barbara Glaser

Barbara Glaser

And while she lives in one of the neighborhood’s ’80s-era towers, she said she doesn’t think the buildings from that era should set the precedent for heights in the area, and she was among those who opposed construction of a high-rise condo building where a historic commercial club-turned-funeral-home now stands.

But the city council overruled attempts by the Heritage Commission to push the developer Alatus harder to find a use for the funeral home. And the council upheld variances that let the building rise to 40 stories, despite guidelines that would have capped it at eight. Though others in the neighborhood support the project, there remains potential for a court appeal of the council’s decision.

Glaser said she now fears that the height of the building will be a precedent, not just in the area of Marcy Holmes near St. Anthony Main and Nicollet Island, but into Dinkytown, where a mid-rise tower is being proposed by a different developer.

“My interest is beyond this single buildings,” Glaser said. “We are enjoying a huge amount of rapid growth and in this one period of time a lot of similar style of architecture. I don’t mind height, and I don’t mind infill, and I don’t mind contemporary. But what draws people here is the unique character of our neighborhoods, of our story.”

Bender said that the neighborhood review process is complex, and when it’s done poorly it adds to the tension between neighbors and developers. But when it’s done well, it eases it. “Our process doesn’t work well for anyone, including neighborhood organizations,” Bender said.

The city doesn’t provide them the help and resources they need “to facilitate these very heated emotional discussions.” Some neighborhood councils have the wherewithal to pay for consultants or have expertise on their boards. Others don’t.

“Time and time again people come in (to neighborhood associations) and say ‘I just don’t want them to break the rules,’” Bender said. “I totally understand that. I understand that they have a lot of distrust for developers … It causes people a lot of stress. So if we’re gonna rely on neighborhood associations, it would be better to have a consistent process and train board members.”

Well functioning boards are more trusted by neighbors, Bender said. They can say “this project is going to be built but we’ve asked for these seven things and we’re getting six.”

Economics of height

A city that desires more density often gets it via taller buildings. But building height is one of the flash points for projects. Opponents argue that taller buildings should be in the downtown and new buildings in near-downtown neighborhoods should be similar in height to what is already there.

The city and its current elected officials seem to be favoring more height, as the Alatus approval demonstrates. Building taller requires concrete, steel and more money. But taller also provides more saleable or rentable square footage. Developers who are able to build taller are often willing to provide more amenities such as open space, street-level retail or better design. “If you want a higher-quality build, you have to go higher,” Frey said. “Not always, but often.”

Added Bender: “If you require a lot of parking or you require every building to be brick or you require all buildings to only be four stories, that means everything is going to be way more expensive,” Bender said. “Yet the overall narrative is that housing prices are way too high and the council isn’t doing enough. As policymakers, we have to step up and find that balance.”