Downzoning Can’t Save Us From the Future

I’ve previously written about the rezoning that’s under consideration for Minneapolis’ Lowry Hill East neighborhood. After a few more weeks of thought, these are my big-picture concerns.

Downzoning is forever

The city’s proposal has been described as interim protection that gets us through until the next update to the city’s Comprehensive Plan (the process for which is currently underway). But “interim” gives the impression that downzoning is temporary. This is technically true; all laws are potentially temporary. But in reality, we’re still stuck with a 1975 decision that left most of the Wedge (under)zoned for nothing greater than a duplex. Downzoning is easy. Upzoning is hard.

It might be right to say this particular rezoning plan is a relatively insignificant drop in the bucket–but it’s still the wrong bucket. Across the city, and over the years, these decisions add up. While we don’t know what the Comp Plan update holds, it would be short-sighted to think we won’t be living with today’s downzoning in 2055.

For parcels north of 28th Street (data compiled by Alex Cecchini).


Why the urgency?

Most of the neighborhood is currently zoned low-density. This means that between 24th and 28th Streets, almost nothing is at risk of intensifying under the existing zoning. The current proposal is focused largely in the north Wedge, where high-density zoning has produced just two new apartment buildings over the last 40-plus years: a 42-unit building (2320 Colfax Ave) and a 10-unit building on the way (2008 Bryant Ave). Again: two new buildings in 40 years.

These are not the scary, 84-foot mega-towers you might think; they’re the kind of incremental, four-story, reduced-parking, transit-accessible housing we should want more of, not less. And they don’t get built without high-density zoning (R5 or higher). If these sorts of buildings are the source of urgency for a rezoning, then it’d be good to hear an explicit argument for why they’re bad for the neighborhood.

Making our current housing problems worse

One of the consequences of our persistently low rental vacancy rates is the trend of older apartment buildings facing luxury renovations and dramatically higher rents. Lack of supply gives landlords the upper hand: more renters bidding for fewer apartments. Downzoning doesn’t just stop new housing for rich jerks–it makes it more likely that a rich jerk will soon be living in a much nicer version of your current apartment. In other words, downzoning can’t stop people from wanting to live here.

(Fake Take™: downzoning should only be done in tandem with a policy that makes this a place nobody wants to live.)

Downzoning does not protect the neighborhood’s existing multifamily character

You may hear advocates say that downzoning protects the character of the neighborhood. But low-density zoning only protects low-density character. Lowry Hill East, despite a history of downzoning, has always been a high-density neighborhood with great local amenities and access to public transit (whether streetcar or bus).

My favorite neighborhood zoning story illustrates the dangers and limitations of downzoning as a tool of preservation. It involves a vacant house undergoing renovation. After being downzoned to two-family in 1975, it remained a legal, non-conforming triplex for 20 years. In 1995, the neighborhood association (LHENA) tried unsuccessfully to have the non-conforming use revoked–to make the triplex illegal.

Wedge newspaper, 1995

By my count, the current downzoning proposal creates at least 20 non-conforming properties where there are more units than zoning allows. This is in addition to countless existing non-conformities created by the 1975 downzoning. Non-conforming properties are vulnerable, and we shouldn’t be creating more. A long period of disuse puts a building’s legal status at risk. If a non-conforming apartment building is destroyed, by fire or other disaster, it can’t be rebuilt to its prior use (correction: state law allows reconstruction within 180 days).

Multi-unit housing is also vulnerable to single-family conversions. Eliminating existing housing has long been an explicit goal of the neighborhood association and other activists–people with a distaste for renters and a belief that duplexes and triplexes are an illegitimate use of a fine historic house. Much to their delight, we’ve seen many multi-unit houses converted to single-family uses over the last 40 years.

 Lost housing (Wedge newspaper, June 1978)

So when we talk about preserving neighborhood character, keep in mind what downzoning can and can’t do: it can stop a new apartment building, but it won’t prevent your duplex from becoming a single-family house, and it won’t protect a low-end apartment from a high-end renovation. Downzoning doesn’t actually preserve what we have, and it can’t protect us from the future. But it can make our other housing problems worse.

There will be a public meeting hosted by CPED and Council Member Lisa Bender from 6-7:30 pm at 1200 W 26th Street (Jefferson Community School).

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