What’s the matter with Alondra?

Last December, Minneapolis City Council Member Alondra Cano went to the Mall of America to join a Black Lives Matter protest.

Completely peaceful people including my fam but @mallofamerica already blocking entrances. #JamarClark #BlackXmas2 pic.twitter.com/2PQdxOpuWZ

— Alondra Cano (@People4Alondra) December 23, 2015

But the mall protest never really happened; crowds moved instead to the light rail and the airport, “creating a rolling wave of disruption on one of the busiest travel and shopping days of the year.” Cano tweeted a few pictures and words of support for BLM, causing her mentions to fill up with people–probably tweeting from home–more distressed by minor holiday travel delays than the death of Jamar Clark, an unarmed black man who was shot and killed by Minneapolis police a month earlier.

Around the same time, Cano was receiving messages to her official Council email address from local people upset by her presence at the protest. She tweeted screenshots and responses to those messages, explaining why she supports BLM.

Because Cano had tweeted screenshots of emails, some of which contained actual phone numbers and addresses, this became an especially delicious outrage (liberal Mexican-American big city councilwoman takes revenge against her anti-Black Lives Matter constituents) for a national network of internet trolls that, in the age of Trump, we’ve all come to know as the “alt-right.” And so Cano was targeted by a gruesome stream of racist, misogynistic messages, some of which described the violent things they’d like to see happen to Cano’s children and parents. Here’s a relatively tame one:

In the immediate aftermath of Screenshot-ghazi, Council President Barb Johnson, after saying she would not comment, brought the TV news into her home–on Christmas Eve!–to comment. Johnson was obviously determined to pour gas on the fire, leading some to speculate that she really does not like Alondra Cano.

Here’s Barb not commenting to the TV news she invited to her house on Christmas Eve.https://t.co/9Z1WSPawuI pic.twitter.com/hwpYRKwku8

— John Edwards (@johneapolis) December 29, 2015

Four months later, City Pages published the article “Alondra Cano flunks City Council 101”. The story was based entirely on anonymous quotes from at least two other members of the City Council. They called her “lazy” and lacking “self-awareness.” One described their reaction to Cano’s behavior during a particular Council meeting: “I just wanted to shoot myself.” In the days after the story was published, all 12 members of the City Council not named Alondra Cano publicly denied being the source of the quotes in the article.

Trashing your co-workers by giving anonymous quotes to reporters is a pretty mean and cowardly thing to do. But City Pages let anonymous insults distract from a real, legitimate story: there is widespread frustration with Cano among her Council colleagues that goes beyond policy disagreement.

Here’s an example of what that looks like. In June, Cano sat through an excruciatingly long Zoning and Planning Committee meeting in order to speak about a particular agenda item. Prior to the meeting, the committee’s chairperson, Lisa Bender, informed Cano that the item she wished to address would be postponed to a later meeting. Even though Cano isn’t a member of the committee, and despite the fact that she knew the topic would be postponed, Cano sat through three-and-a-half hours of unrelated presentations and public comment. As the meeting was coming to an end, she expressed shocked outrage that she had sat there for hours, yet wouldn’t get to speak:

Immediately following that Z&P meeting, Cano took to Facebook to call Bender a racist. (editor’s note: Lisa Bender is not a racist.)
Now, in politics it is perfectly legitimate to put people on the spot, in the middle of a meeting, to see if you can force an issue–to use the element of surprise to your advantage. But if it becomes a routine tactic, your coworkers might become legitimately annoyed with you. You have to pick and choose the degree to which you try to bull your way through other people’s agendas. And despite the fact there’s a lot of racism in the world, of which Cano has received more than her share, it’s good to be judicious when calling people racists.
Cano’s Facebook response to the Z&P meeting.

Cano’s tweets defending her support of BLM, along with screenshots of constituent emails, eventually led to an ethics complaint against her, which was taken up by the City Council in August. A few days ago, it was reported that Cano wrote an email to Council President Barb Johnson expressing her concerns about the process. The scanned image of the email printout makes it clear that it was printed from Barb Johnson’s email account, leading astute observers to wonder if Johnson released it to reporters in order to embarrass Cano.

The Star Tribune characterized Cano’s email as a “warning” to her colleagues. City Pages called it a “threat.” Here’s the relevant section of Cano’s email to Johnson:

I disagree with the findings and have kept screenshots of the ways other Council Members including CM Frey, Bender, Glidden, Abdi and others have used city property for “political” purposes. If the Council votes to approve the Ethics findings I will speak out against the vote and circulate a press release to the media about the issue with the screenshots I’ve gathered since January of 2016.

Cano responded to the stories about her email on Facebook, saying: “When a person of color speaks up, it should not be misconstrued as a “threat” to society, it should be respected as their truth.” Whatever Cano’s intent, the reason people interpreted her email as a threat, is because she constructed it that way: if you vote against me, I’ll put out a press release with incriminating screenshots. This is not to say Cano can’t make an argument that she’s being singled out unfairly, or that she can’t produce evidence to support her defense. But if she was trying to make that argument, she obscured it by writing an email that looked like blackmail.

Alondra Cano really has been the target of vicious racist attacks because of her support for BLM. Separate from those vile attacks, Council President Barb Johnson and some of Cano’s other colleagues really have gone out of their way, to a sometimes comical degree, to trash her in the local media. But it’s also true that Cano picks too many unnecessary battles, irritating her colleagues in a way that transcends race and ideology. If Cano is being unfairly targeted for punishment–and that’s difficult to judge unless/until details become public–that dynamic goes a long way towards explaining why.

Best of Minneapolis City Council Vines

Cast your vote for City Council Performer of the Year.

Ballot at the end of this post.

Barb Johnson in Barb & Order: Special Barb Unit.
Blong Yang is sorry.
Attention-grabbing sneezes fuel speculation of “Cano for Mayor.”

Double-nominee Alondra Cano makes a dramatic exit.
Andrew Johnson in Trash Dance.

Lisa Goodman’s black and white classic: Disingenuous.
Blong’s unfulfilled promise to “camp” in all the Wards.
Barb’s hip hop rendition of “Please, please, please let’s add more parking to the Wells Fargo.”

Jacob Frey’s Sexiest Parcel in the City
Lisa Goodman stars in Your Parcel is Crap.
Andrew Johnson: Social Justice Warrior

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).