7 min read

A zoning revolution

On Friday, September 28, 2018, the city of Minneapolis released a 500-page comprehensive development plan that the mayor dubbed “a forward-thinking vision.” Supported by all but one member of the city council, it is entitled “Minneapolis 2040.” What is obvious from the title is the long-term and aspirational goals of the plan. What is not as obvious to those outside the Twin Cities region is how much controversy the plan has stirred up, prompting headlines, such as Minnesota Public Radio’s, “What the fight over Minneapolis 2040 says about Minneapolis 2018;” the Star Tribune’s, “Find out how your block could change with the Minneapolis 2040 plan;” and City Pages’, “Everything about the 2040 Plan you want to know but are too afraid to ask.”

Though the ambitious plan outlines 14 well-defined goals, at the heart of the public debate is a provision that eliminates single-family-only zoning and allowing, at minimum, triplexes throughout the city, and three- to six-story buildings along transit corridors. Separate accommodation for aging relatives or caretakers, or even rent-paying lodgers, would now be permissible everywhere. Previously, about 60 percent of the city’s land was single-family-zoned, housing 75 percent of the residents.

All of this would dramatically increase how many people could live within the city. As the Star Tribune reported in December, “The plan offers guidance on how to keep Minneapolis affordable, environmentally friendly and racially equitable as the population grows over the next two decades.”

Red signs proclaiming, “Developers Win! Neighborhoods Lose! Stop MPLS 2040,” and “Save Neighborhoods! Support Community! Change the 2040 Plan,” have sprouted up on front lawns in various parts of the city.

Aside from the obvious implications to affordable housing, many city planners have long criticized single-family zoning as enabling de facto segregation and encouraging urban and suburban sprawl.

As Mayor Jacob Frey told reporter Kriston Capps in a December interview with The Atlantic’s CityLab, “Minneapolis has a long history going back 100 years of redlining and intentional segregation. We literally have maps at the city that identify north Minneapolis as a slum for blacks and Jews. We need to make sure that the precision of our solutions match the precision of the harm initially inflicted. And that harm was precise.”

The Exodus Reverses
Another reality behind the new plan is the fact that the city’s population peaked in 1950, with a continual exodus to the suburbs. The trend reversed around 2010, and by 2016, the municipal population had grown by more than 37,000. The current population stands at around 425,000. Without affordable housing and increased density in a city whose residential areas have been overwhelmingly single-family-zoned, civic leaders realized Minnesota’s largest city could not reach its full potential in terms of population, diversity, employment, lifestyle and tax base. Currently, most of Minneapolis outside the downtown area is single-family zoned, vacancies are low and rent, purchase prices have been on a steady rise, and homelessness is a growing problem. All of this has contributed, in municipal authorities’ views, to a housing crisis.

Mayor Frey went on to say, “The plan itself goes to the Metropolitan Council [the Twin Cities’ regional policy-making body] for final approval. The comprehensive plan is not the law in and of itself. It’s a forward-thinking vision of where our city can be. The code or the law itself rests in our zoning. . . This comprehensive plan is not just a housing vision. It includes everything from basic infrastructure to water management to transportation.”

Or, as a published FAQ states, “Minneapolis 2040 will guide future growth for the city. It is not an instruction book, but rather a tool to frame our growth, set direction and give high-level guidance. This plan will be used to inform future ordinances, zoning code revisions and our strategic racial equity plan, among other items.”

Goals and Policy
Specifically, the plan lays out the following goals: Eliminate disparities; More residents and jobs; Affordable and accessible housing; Living-wage jobs; Healthy, safe and connected people; High-quality physical environment; History and culture; Creative, cultural and natural amenities; Complete neighborhoods; Climate change resilience; Clean environment; Healthy, sustainable and diverse economy; Proactive, accessible and sustainable government; and Equitable civic participation system. These 14 goals are further refined into 100 policy recommendations. As in San Francisco and Seattle and other cities with new long-term plans, density will be particularly promoted around transit hubs.

“In terms of the conversation, there is not a lot of talk about the rest of the comprehensive plan, which is ambitious, valid and as the mayor says, forward-thinking,” says Heidi Zimmer, senior vice president for properties at ArtSpace, the Minneapolis-based nonprofit that uses the tools of real estate development to construct or restore places where artists can affordably live and work. Zimmer is a longtime participant and observer of the Twin Cities real estate for-profit and nonprofit development scenes. “Most people thought it had only to do with housing density goals. A lot of neighborhoods embraced it, understanding the need for more diverse housing stock. Those neighborhoods that didn’t have been fighting for a long time.”

“It depends on who you ask,” adds Andrew Michaelson, ArtSpace’s director of property development.

“A lot of people living in single-family homes say they bought their homes for the low density, to be near the lake, for good neighborhood schools, or other reasons and they don’t want the character of their neighborhoods changed. I’ve not really heard, ‘We don’t want renters or those people’ moving in, but I’m sure that’s a subtext in some cases.” On the other hand, many of those opposing the zoning changes have pushed back against being labeled racist. Some also worry about larger, modern buildings replacing prized historic architecture.

In general, Zimmer and Michaelson agree, the development community has been in strong support of Minneapolis 2040.

“It will guide zoning and small area planning. But what the plan doesn’t change is the land value,” Michaelson points out. “It’s still going to be prohibitive for many low-density, single-family neighborhoods. Land values will largely dictate what happens.”

As local government reporter Jessica Lee stated in Minn-Post, a statewide nonprofit journalism outlet, “Few places in the United States have considered such comprehensive zoning changes, particularly those affecting neighborhoods with only single-family homes.” She goes on to write, “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?”

Pitching Change
If Zimmer and Michaelson have any major criticism of the program, it relates to the public relations effort. Initially, there was little explanation on how the plan would improve the city’s housing market. And essentially, though thousands of opinions were collected beforehand, the plan was released, then general public reaction was sought. “Part of how this was received was how it was presented,” Michaelson observes. As a result, part of the commentary and discussion was ‘Developers win!’ reacting as if it was a mandate.”

“People thought it was a much heavier hand, when in fact, the goal was to allow flexibility in zoning and an encouragement to think more broadly,” says Zimmer.  “And hand-in-hand with this is an increase in the affordable housing trust fund. This is clearly seen as a blueprint by the mayor and city council.” The mayor’s budget puts $40 million into affordable housing.

“Most comprehensive plans are done to plant the garden,” Michaelson says, “to cultivate future attitudes. Leaders have known for a long time that you can’t have a thriving city without good distribution of diversity, resources, affordability, jobs, education and culture. If [because of Minneapolis 2040] we don’t have an uphill fight and take NIMBY off the table, that opens up a lot of avenues.”

And Zimmer comments, “It is a model for cities to take an honest look at their housing stock and plan for the future.”