We’re being flooded with national takes about what happened in our city last week. Esquire magazine is writing about zoning in Minneapolis. The New York Times says the city has taken a “bold move to address its affordable-housing crisis and confront a history of racist housing practices.” Coastal elites are saying we’ve made “zoning history,” becoming the first major American city to abolish single-family zoning — and the third major US city to eliminate minimum parking requirements. Or, maybe we haven’t done anything very radical at all: Minneapolis is just “welcoming back historic, modest housing types: duplexes and triplexes.”
The truth about what happened last week is that it was six years in the making. How did we get here? Who is responsible? Where will we park? Like nearly all stories worth telling, this one begins in the Wedge neighborhood of Minneapolis.
The Rise of Lisa Bender
During her first pregnancy in 2010, Lisa Bender survived cancer. For her next pregnancy in 2013, she ran for the Minneapolis City Council. She gave birth to her second child less than a month before election day. Campaign literature from the time featured pictures of her young family, her record as a bike advocate, and her urban planning background.
Bender won in a landslide, defeating her Wedge neighbor, Ward 10 incumbent Meg Tuthill. Tuthill had achieved some notoriety during her one term for being hostile to patio dining, and for leaving a “snotty voicemail” rebuffing a business owner who’d asked her for help opening a brewery. In her more than 40 years as a Wedge neighborhood fixture, Tuthill had been part of several attempts at downzoning, including an unsuccessful 2004 effort to impose single-family zoning.
Ward 10 is densely populated, well-served by transit, and has several popular commercial districts. While it’s not the right place for single-family zoning, it’s exactly the kind of place that would elect Lisa Bender. Bender is unreservedly pro-housing; she never fails to remind an audience that (1) her Ward is 80 percent renter, and (2) that the consequences of a low rental vacancy rate fall most heavily on her constituents.
In her first term, Bender successfully pushed for traditional progressive priorities like a municipal minimum wage and earned sick time. She lived up to her reputation as a bike and pedestrian advocate: bike lanes proliferated and the city adopted a complete streets policy. As Chair of the Council’s Zoning and Planning Committee, Bender was the force behind reforms that reduced or eliminated parking minimums near transit; she authored the ordinance that legalized accessory dwelling units (ADUs); and she pushed the implementation of pedestrian-oriented standards on commercial corridors (setting minimum building heights and limiting the impact of parking lots and curb cuts).
The remarkable policy successes of Bender’s first term didn’t come without backlash. There was unrest on Facebook. Nextdoor.com was frequently in revolt. Old nemesis Meg Tuthill teamed up with HGTV personality Nicole Curtis to protest Bender’s vote to allow a small apartment building to replace two old houses. In the weeks before Bender’s re-election last year, there was the infamous “Nazi Lane” bike lane protest march — attended by one of Bender’s 2017 opponents (and of course Meg Tuthill).
One very under-the-radar item on Bender’s plate as Zoning and Planning Chair in that first term: setting the table for Minneapolis’ once-a-decade update to its 2040 comprehensive plan.
What has struck me watching her career unfold over the last five years: Lisa Bender has always shown remarkable political courage in pursuit of ideas that invite controversy — housing! parking! bike lanes! And she always manages to have the votes to pass her priorities. Her skill as a consensus-builder is best exemplified by last week’s 12-1 City Council vote to pass a 2040 plan that — among many other big ideas — legalized triplexes citywide and did away with parking requirements altogether.
2017: A Wave Election in Minneapolis
In the closing weeks of the 2017 campaign, as the prospect of progressive victories seemed increasingly likely, an outside political fund made up of developers and downtown business interests spent $274,000 to defeat a slate of City Council challengers who’d run campaigns based on issues like affordable housing, racial equity, climate action, and police reform.
The outside money was too little too late. The 2017 Minneapolis election was a progressive wave. Voters elected five new members to the 13-member City Council. Four of them were key votes to make Lisa Bender the new City Council President. Bender always seems to have the votes.
Once again, Bender was replacing a very different kind of politician. Council President Barbara Johnson was old school. In chronicling Johnson’s surprising defeat, the Star Tribune called her “a target of the political left in Minneapolis, which has grown impatient with a lack of progress toward narrowing the city’s racial economic inequalities and viewed her as a protector of the status quo.”
Johnson’s family — her cousin, then her mother, then Barb herself — held the Ward 4 seat on the City Council for the previous 46 years. Her mother had also been Council President. Johnson was staunchly law-and-order in a city increasingly concerned about police reform. During a Council discussion about a program intended to help people of color, indigenous, and immigrant communities heal from a history of racist policies, Barb Johnson puzzled over why the program didn’t help white people. In objecting to the idea of ADUs, Johnson couldn’t support them because she thought they would become houses of prostitution in her single-family neighborhoods.
The person elected to replace Barb Johnson in Ward 4 was Phillipe Cunningham. Cunningham couldn’t be more different than his predecessor: a progressive, transgender black man who campaigned for an approach to policing that addresses root causes of crime. In Ward 5, voters replaced a Johnson ally with Jeremiah Ellison (son of Minnesota Attorney General-elect Keith Ellison), who is now working closely with Bender on a series of renter-protection policies. Ward 11 elected Jeremy Schroeder, another Bender ally who has assumed her old role as Chair of the Zoning and Planning Committee.
The election brought a new majority to the council, a newly empowered President Lisa Bender, and a City Hall eager to pursue a progressive agenda.
The Comprehensive Plan: Minneapolis 2040
Just two months into the new Council term, the 2040 plan was almost ready. The fourplex proposal was leaked to the Star Tribune in early March, a few weeks ahead of the first draft’s release. Keen observers speculated that the leaker was an opponent of the plan trying to stoke early outrage. Even so, fourplexes made a big splash with housing advocates, serving as a bold idea to rally around.
But the issues were bigger than just fourplexes, and the plan’s origins stretched back years, predating a set of 2040 plan goals adopted unanimously by the previous City Council in April 2017. The adoption of those goals recognized the need to address the region’s large racial disparities, meet the housing needs of a rapidly growing population, and take steps to address climate change.
Community engagement for the plan was a massive three-year process. Feedback was solicited at hundreds of meetings and community events. The plan was unlike anything ever attempted in Minneapolis and so was the outreach.
Developers and the downtown business community reacted to the plan with indifference. Fourplexes aren’t their business. Developers were, however, deeply concerned about a proposed “inclusionary zoning” policy that was being developed in parallel to the 2040 planning process. Lisa Bender ultimately made good on her promise that a 2040 plan wouldn’t happen without inclusionary zoning — which mandated some percentage of affordable units in new construction.
The Red Sign Brigade
By the summer, red anti-2040 signs started appearing in yards and on social media. The signs were distributed by a group called Minneapolis for Everyone. A large share of those signs popped up in the whitest, wealthiest part of the city: Ward 13 in Southwest Minneapolis.
The most memorable of the messages on those red yard signs was “Don’t Bulldoze Our Neighborhoods.” Officials were soon forced to debunk panicked rumors of eminent domain. But the truth was, if you liked your single-family home you could keep it.
Plan supporters responded to the bulldozer fears by noting that Southwest Minneapolis has been a hotbed of demolitions for years. Modest homes are routinely replaced with larger “McMansions.” What people really hated was the idea of several families living in a large house, instead of just one; bulldozing wasn’t actually the big concern.
The most prominent members of Minneapolis for Everyone were Lisa McDonald and Carol Becker. As it turned out, their emergence as the public face of the opposition made it very hard to put forward a compelling or sympathetic case against the plan.
Lisa McDonald is a retired City Council member (strangely enough, she held Lisa Bender’s Ward 10 seat in the 1990s). In September, McDonald gave a press conference comparing her organization, made up significantly of privileged white homeowners, to a “marginalized group.” McDonald also achieved some notoriety for hosting a fundraiser in her backyard for a reviled local political figure — Trump-supporting Hennepin County Sheriff Rich Stanek.
No sketch of the 2040 opposition would be complete without Carol Becker. Becker is a member of the city’s most obscure elected body, the Board of Estimate and Taxation. As the public comment period for the 2040 plan closed in July, Becker filed trademark and business registrations for the name “Wedge Live.” You’ll recognize “Wedge Live” as the name of the website you’re reading right now. This appeared to be a malicious attempt to shut down political opinions she disagreed with. Many articles were written. Even by the standards of Carol Becker, this was a particularly embarrassing thing to have done. (To this day, Becker continues to elicit chuckles by lecturing other people about “morals,” “ethics,” and “honesty.”)
Becker’s closing argument on the 2040 plan involved taunting the Planning Commission and the City Council, telling them they should “have the balls” to reject the plan.
If you had asked Minneapolis 2040 supporters to draw up the ideal cast of characters to contrast their own arguments against, “Minneapolis for Everyone” is the crew they would have invented. And let’s not forget the guy behind the 2040 lawsuit:
“Somewhat hilariously, this ‘Don’t Bulldoze Our Neighborhoods’ legal action is being run from a southwest Minneapolis address that was bulldozed by its current owner. The website soliciting donations related to a potential lawsuit against the city asks supporters to send contributions to the address of a $1.4 million, 4500 square foot, single-family home, constructed in 2007 following the bulldozing of an existing single-family home. Property records show the homeowner is John Goetz of the personal injury law firm Schwebel, Goetz and Sieben.”
Finally, there was this flare-up between Ward 4 Council Member Phillipe Cunningham and a contingent of Ward 13 residents:
“Cunningham tweeted prior to the hearing that he had received a “flood’ of emails from Southwest Minneapolis “using the North Side’s struggles’ to justify exclusionary zoning in wealthier neighborhoods. Cunningham asked people not to bring that argument to the public hearing, and to “spread the word to your book club.’ This war of words between North and South received generous attention in the Star Tribune article about the hearing. One woman strongly denied being a member of a book club.”
Neighbors for More Neighbors
In the months before the city published the first draft of the 2040 plan, local housing advocates anticipated the need for an organized response. They called their group Neighbors for More Neighbors.
With Lisa Bender having guided the process at City Hall for more than a year, the expectation was that the first draft of the plan would be good. Planners would deliver something worthy of the new progressive council. The political challenge would be how to keep that first draft of the plan from getting worse.
[Full disclosure: I am a co-founder of Neighbors for More Neighbors.]
The official kickoff of Neighbors for More Neighbors happened at about the same time the first 2040 draft was published by the city. The group organized turnout for engagement meetings and encouraged people to provide feedback to the city.
As red yard signs started gaining visibility, people began asking for signs to counter the message — and so More Neighbors got into the yard sign game. People were hungry for an alternative to the 100% pure, distilled NIMBYism of the red signs. At street festivals over the summer, people would ask volunteers from More Neighbors, “are you guys the opposite of the red sign people?” And then they would take home a sign.
October 29 was the first public hearing on the 2040 plan. Well over a hundred people came to speak. Two weeks later, the City Council held another public hearing. Both meetings stretched for five hours. Naysayers usually rule the day at public meetings. But 2040 supporters turned out in numbers to match the opposition. More Neighbors was joined by members of the Sierra Club, MN350, and SEIU, Our Streets Minneapolis and others — all making arguments in favor of a bold 2040 plan to address a housing shortage, racial disparities, and a worsening climate crisis.
Laying the intellectual groundwork for this activism: the bloggers. My own personal entry into Minneapolis transportation and land use issues five years ago was the local group blog streets.mn — as a reader and then as a writer.
A Surprising Consensus
Starting the moment the first draft of the plan was published, the city’s director of Long-Range Planning, Heather Worthington, took more than her share of abuse, both from the public and from City Council members. But city planners put forward a bold comprehensive plan knowing (1) there was a Council President Bender who would have their backs, and (2) the new city council wouldn’t hang them out to dry.
But early debate over the 2040 plan at City Hall hinted at a potential knock-down, drag-out political fight over housing density. Ward 7 Council Member Lisa Goodman publicly wondered if her constituents would have the plan “shoved down [their] throat.”
In May, Goodman said she felt blindsided, telling the city’s director of Long-Range Planning: “I was here for that process and nowhere in those points did we say put a fourplex on every block. Nowhere did we say take single-family homes and turn them into four-story buildings.”
Goodman ultimately voted for the plan, striking a far different tone. She argued that “the world was not coming to an end” because of triplexes. She spoke against “continuing to do things the way we’ve always done them.” Of course, this was after she had considerably reduced how many people would get to live in the swanky part of her ward that will soon have a $2 billion light rail line running through it. Still, her vote was a surprising departure from earlier statements and her reputation as a defender of single-family neighborhoods.
Back in March, Ward 2 Council Member Cam Gordon’s initial reaction to the plan was to worry about the loss of affordable single-family “starter homes.” Ward 12’s Andrew Johnson expressed the same concern, anticipating the proposal would be received “like a lead balloon” with his constituents. Both ultimately voted for the final, triplexed version of the 2040 plan.
Gordon’s rhetorical transformation in particular was striking. Here’s what he told Slate last week after voting for the plan:
“‘A lot of research has been done on the history that’s led us to this point,’ said Cam Gordon, a city councilman who represents the Second Ward, which includes the University of Minnesota’s flagship campus. ‘That history helped people realize that the way the city is set up right now is based on this government-endorsed and sanctioned racist system.’ Easing the plan’s path to approval, he said, was the fact that modest single-family homes in appreciating neighborhoods were already making way for McMansions. Why not allow someone to build three units in the same-size building?”
The only holdout was Ward 13 Council Member Linea Palmisano, who unloaded on planning staff, saying she had been “misled,” “duped,” and “insulted” through the process.
There was the inevitable last-minute watering down of the plan: fourplexes became triplexes, and there were extremely regrettable density reductions along billion dollar transit investments. But there were also many amendments intended to enhance the plan’s impact. Phillipe Cunningham and Jeremiah Ellison crafted a Northside-specific section of the plan to address a history of institutional racism. Cam Gordon added an action step about legalizing ADUs for non-owner occupied homes, and creating pre-approved templates to make the ADU process easier. Ward 8’s Andrea Jenkins added this item:
“Expand programs that support homeownership to include owner-occupied small multi-family buildings as a strategy to support both homeownership and entrepreneurship particularly in communities of color.”
So many of the bold ideas contained in the 2040 plan were born out of Lisa Bender’s leadership on these issues going back to 2014. Whether it’s parking reform, or accessory dwelling units, or creating the kind of dense, walkable communities that make a meaningful difference in combating climate change — Bender has been tirelessly building the case for these policies since she was first elected in 2013. And the remarkable 12-1 vote in favor of this bold plan shows that Bender is still building consensus with an eye towards future progress.
In Summary: The Stars Aligned for Minneapolis 2040
If you’ve skipped to the end, hoping to have the Minneapolis 2040 recipe boiled down to its essentials, here it is:
- Courageous, visionary leader
- Progressive wave election
- A massive three-year engagement
- A monumental organizing effort
- Clown car full of comic book villains in opposition
- Create such a fuss over fourplexes/triplexes that nobody notices you eliminated parking requirements citywide
Now go enact this important stuff in other cities.