The Truth About Drug Treatment Centers

A petition against the NuWay drug treatment center.

The executive director of the Whittier Alliance neighborhood organization believes “people in [addiction] recovery tend to bring about drug dealers.” This idea went completely unchallenged in a City Pages article about the NuWay Counseling Center which recently opened at 2118 Blaisdell Ave. It’s a sentiment that’s been repeated often over the years when the issue of “too many treatment centers” in Whittier comes up.

I’m sure this idea feels true to many people. Most people reading the article will nod and go on assuming that it is true. But is it actually true that drug treatment centers are crime magnets? I can find no evidence that this is true (I tried hard). Instead, there are two studies saying treatment centers do not cause an increase in crime:

There’s an important lesson here: when a man on the street, especially someone with a neighborhood organization, tells you why a thing is about to destroy the neighborhood, always do some extra journalism.

It’s unfortunate this idea went unchallenged in the article, because last year City Pages was good enough to print a response from NuWay’s executive director addressing the Whittier Alliance crime concerns:

That’s a really interesting theory. That’s a closely held opinion of the Whittier Alliance, but there’s just no evidence. Center City is not a hotbed for drug dealers because Hazelden is out there. Anybody who knows anything about recovery knows that’s really not true.

Here’s another true thing that wasn’t mentioned, but deserves to be: people living in transitional housing while undergoing treatment for addiction are protected by the Americans with Disabilities Act. The City of Minneapolis is legally barred from denying them equal access to housing. So even though Minneapolis has a spacing requirement intended to keep drug treatment centers geographically dispersed, federal law says that’s not okay. Because of this, most cities have done way with spacing requirements. Minneapolis has maintained the requirement, but doesn’t enforce it.

Minneapolis Zoning Board of Adjustment transcript

I understand the impulse to want to choose your neighbors. I hate noise and criminals and people who are terrible. Even though I’m personally very good at pre-judging who the terrible people are, most of society is very bad at it. We can’t choose our neighbors, and we shouldn’t be able to. We should protect our homes and neighborhoods with laws against crimes, not laws restricting where certain people live because they belong to a group we wrongly anticipate will destroy the neighborhood.

Wedge Downzoning Explained in Six Maps

Rezoning is back on the table for Lowry Hill East. Here are some maps to help you understand the history of neighborhood zoning and the potential impact of the city’s current proposal.


The zoning map below is from a time (before I-94 separated Lowry Hill East from Loring Park and downtown) when the neighborhood was zoned entirely for high-density housing (R6).

1975: first downzoning

The Lowry Hill East Neighborhood Association’s founding mission was to eliminate the zoning that allowed the construction of apartment buildings. They were hugely successful. Our current zoning largely resembles the map below, recommended by LHENA in 1975. Today, 60% of neighborhood properties are zoned low-density (roughly 435 out of 725 parcels zoned R2B).

2004: a push for single family zoning

In 2004, political pressure led the city to enact an apartment building moratorium and conduct a rezoning study. LHENA recommended the zoning map below. The LHENA plan would have eliminated high-density zoning entirely, and designated six blocks in the center of the neighborhood where a majority of properties (69) would be downzoned to single-family (R1A). The homeowners behind this plan were unwilling to compromise with the city, and rezoning was tabled indefinitely.
Proposed single-family core in red box.

2008-2015: historic district

The desire for a super-expansive historic district was pretty transparently about stopping new apartments. The energy behind creating a historic district just happened to bubble up after the failed attempt at downzoning the neighborhood in 2004. A historic district of modest scope was officially designated by the city in 2015.

2016 downzoning plan offered by the city

The city’s current proposal (my reaction here) resembles what was rejected by homeowners in 2004. Most significantly, the plan would eliminate much of the high-density zoning in the transit-rich northern part of the neighborhood.

Lowry Hill East as currently constituted is not allowed by zoning.

The map I have created below shows (1) existing buildings that could not be built today because they have too many dwelling units and (2) additional buildings that would have “too many units” if the city’s current rezoning proposal were implemented. The neighborhood as it exists is effectively not allowed by zoning. If you think that’s a problem, we’re about to make it worse.

This map is not comprehensive. There are certainly more nonconformities.

Time to Hold the Line on Downzoning

Forty-one years after a rezoning left most of Lowry Hill East zoned low-density, the city of Minneapolis has put neighborhood rezoning back on the table. The current plan is nearly all downzoning, meant to clean up the few high-density scraps left over from 1975. It’s hard not to take this issue personally, because I live in one of the last apartment buildings constructed before that long-ago downzoning; in other words, the roof over my head inspired a group of very passionate homeowners to say “that is enough of that!”

Lowry Hill East (aka the Wedge) is a dense, high-renter (75%) neighborhood, with exceptional access to amenities that make it a desirable place to live. The neighborhood is bounded by transit on all sides: bus routes 2, 4, 6, 17, 21, 12, 53, 113, and 114. We’re split down the center by a bike boulevard. We have the Midtown Greenway to our south, and more bike lanes on the way. I can walk to three grocery stores, a drugstore, a hardware store, two tattoo parlors, and countless psychic readers. My neighbors and I are all lucky to live here.

Considering the neighborhood’s location on the edge of downtown, with enviable access to transit and bike routes, it’s hard to understand the extent of the proposed downzoning. Roughly 25 properties on Bryant and Aldrich Aves, between 24th St and Franklin Ave, would be reclassified from high to medium-density (R6 to R3). This is despite the fact that anyone who lives in that small seven-block triangle is no more than a few minutes walk from four different bus routes. From a transit perspective it’s actually better to live in the interior of the neighborhood: it means you’re close to many bus routes, instead of just one bus route. If a growing Minneapolis is our goal, this is exactly the kind of place we ought to be growing. It’s not an area we should be downzoning.

CPED’s plan to downzone the transit-rich north Wedge from high (brown) to medium density (orange). (emojis added for emphasis)

Here’s one example to illustrate why this is a problem. There’s a 10-unit apartment building–small footprint, single lot, one parking spot–that’s about to begin construction in the transit-heavy north Wedge. It was made possible by our neighborhood’s transportation amenities, as well as recent reforms that eliminated or reduced some of our city’s residential parking requirements. But a building like this also requires high-density zoning. I want to see more projects like this, not fewer. We should be careful not to undercut the positive results of parking reform (fewer cars, lower rents) by underzoning one of the neighborhoods best positioned to take advantage of the new policy.

It’s time to accept that we will never sate the Downzoning Gods. There are people in Linden Hills who would like to be shielded from development. There are homeowners in Whittier who’d like restrictions too. And in two or 10 or 20 years, there will be people in Lowry Hill East who will ask for even more downzoning, or a larger historic district. Because that’s how it always is. Goalposts get moved.

1975 Wedge newspaper headline. Upon further review, downzoning activists have decided they need more winning.

The 1975 downzoning in Lowry Hill East (which I wrote about here), was hailed as ultimate victory–until it wasn’t. In 2004, the same longtime activists pushed a plan that included single-family zoning. A few years later, they began lobbying for a historic district (a “backdoor downzoning” intended primarily as a roadblock to multi-family development).

Neighborhood by neighborhood, taken individually, downzoning is the easy answer, and politically tempting. But as a city, we need to hold the line–whether for reasons related to sustainability, public health, the cost of housing, or creating a broader tax base to support more and better city services.

Not everyone is going to live in a luxury mega-tower downtown. Some people will need to live a few streets in from Hennepin or Lyndale or some other busy corridor. Some people will have to live inside our neighborhoods, in the nondescript fourplex next door, and in the 10-unit apartment building down the block. It sends the wrong message to be downzoning Lowry Hill East, when the hard truth is there are a lot of Minneapolis neighborhoods that need some upzoning.

We should also acknowledge the real health consequences that result from restricting large numbers of renters to the edges of high-pollution, high-traffic, statistically more dangerous streets and highways, while using zoning and historic districts to reserve neighborhood interiors for single-family homeowners.

So we will need to overcome the bias against apartment buildings in our neighborhood interiors. I’m not sure how that became a radical idea, because I see rows of old apartment buildings on quiet interior streets in the Wedge, in East Isles, in CARAG and elsewhere. Higher density housing is not inherently disruptive. The land underneath many of our area’s 100-year-old apartment buildings has, over the decades, been downzoned to low-density. But these buildings fit our neighborhoods just fine and–if we acknowledge the history–they always have.

Apartment buildings like this one, at 25th and Colfax, show that high density housing has always had a place in the neighborhood interior.

As I said, my apartment building was constructed just before the 1975 Wedge downzoning. That’s fortunate for me and my neighbors, because the building has aged into affordability. As a result, it has the kind of racial diversity you don’t see in the extremely low-density historic district down the street. I worry about the impact downzoning has, not just on our city’s near-term ability to meet an ever-increasing demand for housing, but on the way my neighborhood looks, and who gets to live here, decades into the future.

The Lowry Hill East downzoning plan will go before the Minneapolis City Planning Commission in the coming months. You can email planner Brian Schaffer <> and City Council Member Lisa Bender <> with your feedback.