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More density, less parking and ‘Freyplexes’: What Minneapolis’ comprehensive plan update says about the city

Presented to Minneapolis planning commission Thursday afternoon, the update is meant to guide city policy making around development, zoning and infrastructure through 2040.

After one element of a proposed update of Minneapolis’ comprehensive plan led to an unscripted, hair-on-fire introduction to the public, city officials are looking for less drama with the official roll out of the plan.

Presented to the city planning commission Thursday afternoon, the update is meant to guide city policy making around development, zoning and infrastructure investments through 2040. Mandated to be completed every 10 years by state law and subject to Met Council oversight, the new comp plan will be open for public comment until July 22, with city council approval expected in November.

Lengthy, complex and, yes, comprehensive, the plan reflects directions by the council for the city to absorb a growing population as well as build denser neighborhoods with better access to transit, employment and services. An interactive website provides details of the plan and includes maps that allows parcel-by-parcel searches to reveal what is proposed.

This graphic includes 12 future land use categories.

Minneapolis 2040
This graphic includes 12 future land use categories.

Users will find some terms that will be unfamiliar. Previous plans have referred to types of land uses as commercial corridor, growth center and activity center. This one uses the terms interior, corridor, transit and core. Interior means residential areas that are interior to arterial roads that might contain commercial buildings and multi-family buildings.

In the past, such plans also focused on systems such as land use, utilities and infrastructure. But this one also attempts to integrate broader policy goals of the city. And because it is the first rewrite in a decade, the plan was produced with an eye on two topics that have emerged since then: racial equity and climate change. “We really want to examine and recognize the relationship between built form in the city to the social fabric of the community,” said the city’s long range planning director Heather Worthington.

Affordable housing will also play a starring role in the plan, though Worthington said how it will do so is still in play. While the entire document is a draft, she dubbed the affordable housing section a “drafty draft.” There is currently no discussion of what is called inclusionary zoning, for instance, an idea that calls for developers of large residential buildings to have a certain percentage of units affordable to lower income residents. That topic is expected to be on the city council agenda in the summer and fall and could end up in the comp plan later, she said.

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The plan does propose changes to parking requirements to take advantage of improved transit options, make production of new housing somewhat cheaper and reduce car use. And it calls for more commercial nodes in neighborhoods to reduce the need for cars for errand-running. “Car-trip reductions are a big part of the overall plan,” Worthington said “Nine out of 10 trips are taken for errands, not on commuting. So building more retail and commercial into our residential areas can help people access those on foot or on a bike or using transit.”

There is also an emphasis on energy efficient construction to help the city reach its carbon reduction goals. And areas that are already seeing intense development will likely see it increase should the plan be approved.

The ‘Freyplex’ fracas

While there are controversial elements in the draft — increased density and fewer parking requirements, among them — none stand to be as controversial as what some have taken to call “Freyplexes.”

After council members were given a background briefing earlier this month — and after one detail of the plan was reported on by the Star Tribune — a sweeping plan became embroiled in one issue: whether the city should allow up to four units on a single-family lot in residential zones.

The purpose of allowing more “fourplexes” was to both increase density and to make more neighborhoods available and affordable. But with the leak, the narrative became that the city would allow apartment buildings in single-family neighborhoods.

The revelation put the city on the defensive, and sent both Mayor Jacob Frey and City Council President Lisa Bender to Twitter. “I strongly support adding more housing options in Minneapolis neighborhoods,” tweeted Bender. “We have a housing shortage, with a very low rental vacancy rate. Over 50 percent of residents are renters. Over 40 percent of people live alone.”

Tweeted Frey: “Affordable housing is a right. Addressing our housing supply — and shortage — is going to be a key part or realizing that right. I look forward to seeing the full Comp Plan and to the conversations ahead about building a more affordable MPLS.”

Yet the plan says such buildings would likely look like existing houses, and even be conversions of existing houses, coming in at no more than two-and-a-half stories with similar setbacks. “We’re saying up to four units,” Worthington said, which could include an accessory dwelling unit and three units within another building. “But importantly, the massing and the scale of the building cannot be more than the surrounding buildings which may be single-family homes.” 

Total population in Minneapolis

Sources: Decennial Census, Metropolitan Council
Total population in Minneapolis

Council Member Steve Fletcher said he has heard from residents about fourplexes. He said he understands that some individual pieces of the plan might feel disruptive, but he said he tries to reminds residents that separate ideas shouldn’t be taken out of the context of the overall plan.

“The thing I’m reminding people about the comprehensive plan is that it’s supposed to be comprehensive,” Fletcher said. “If you pull out one piece of it, that piece does or doesn’t work in relation to the other things. So a relaxation of the zoning code works hand in hand with an increased investment in public transportation.”

Fletcher  said the plan puts into place a lot of proposals elected officials have been talking about for years and “frankly people are frustrated haven’t already happened.”

Chipping away at ‘decades of mistrust’

In the course of drafting of the updated plan, the city spent the last two years doing public outreach, holding 50 meetings and emphasizing contact with groups that haven’t always been listened to.

Rattana Sengsoulichanh, the city planner who led the process of reaching communities of color, the young, seniors and immigrants, said there has been a lot of distrust but said he thinks the process had some success. “We have been able to get some meaningful conversations and feedback that has informed a lot of this policy content,” he said. “But in other degrees there’s a lot of chipping away at years and hundreds of years and decades of mistrust.”

Once the plan is approved by the council and gets the Met Council’s okay, the city will begin making sure the zoning code meshes with the new plan. That could take up to two years. The city would also have to begin working to align the comp plan neighborhoods’ small area plans. Some of the current plans mesh with what is being proposed but others do not.

Here are some additional policies included in the draft comprehensive plan for the city:

  • “Direct newly-established retail uses in buildings connected by skyways to be located primarily on the ground floor with an entrance facing the street.”
  • “Designate Production and Processing Areas that comprise large contiguous tracts of land historically used for industrial purposes, that are well-served by transportation infrastructure for both people and freight, and that also contain building stock suitable for production and processing businesses to expand access to higher wage job opportunities.”
  • “Identify and limit new heavy industrial uses that harm human health throughout the city.”
  • “On development sites encompassing most of or an entire block, encourage multiple buildings on the site to increase visual interest.”
  • “Ensure that buildings incorporate design elements that eliminate long stretches of blank, inactive exterior walls through provision of windows, multiple entrance doors, green walls, and architectural details.”
  • “Integrate components in building designs that offer protection to pedestrians, such as awnings and canopies, as a means to encourage pedestrian activity along the street.”
  • “In new developments and additions to existing buildings, retain mature trees, replace lost trees, and plant more trees if none were there originally.”
  • “Provide equitable and ample access to walking, bicycling, transit options, and a shared mobility economy.”
  • “Establish parking guidelines and requirements that reflect changing car ownership models, both on-street and off-street.”
  • “Eliminate off-street parking minimums throughout the City.”
  • “Create strategies to retain existing housing types that are not currently being constructed in the marketplace, such as single room occupancy, large family and multigenerational housing.”
  • “Develop and implement policies and programs that support the preservation and rehabilitation of naturally occurring affordable housing to prevent the displacement of existing residents.”
  • “Expand programs that support existing homeowners in affording and maintaining their home, with a focus on people of color, indigenous people and vulnerable populations, such as low-income households, the elderly and people with disabilities.”
  • “Continue to support a growing residential population downtown.”
  • “Encourage the recruitment and retention of retailers in downtown that help office workers and residents fulfill daily needs.”
  • “Require a minimum level of development near METRO stations to ensure that land is used efficiently near major transit investments.”
  • “Line main pedestrian routes leading to METRO stations with active uses on the ground floor of buildings.”
  • “Expand the use of non-enforcement, community-driven public safety strategies and responses such as restorative practices that can address and repair the harm caused by a crime.”