A History of Downzoning

The year is 1995. A landlord is renovating his triplex when a concerned neighbor appeals to the neighborhood association for help. The organization comes to the rescue, deciding¹ that “because the building has been vacant for over a year, the nonconforming use expires and the building should revert to a duplex.” The neighborhood was Lowry Hill East. And that heroic concerned neighbor would go on to become the chairman of LHENA’s 2004 rezoning subcommittee.

The history of Lowry Hill East is full of stories like this. Over the last 45 years, our neighborhood political process has operated largely from the perspective, and with the priorities, of the single-family homeowner. Lowry Hill East is a place with a long tradition of apartment buildings and a population that has hovered around 75-85% renter for as far back as I’m able to check (1940). But the politics is dominated by a consistent, uncompromising advocacy against dense, multi-family housing.

The elimination of high-density zoning was a founding principle of LHENA. In 1975, after years of hard work, the group succeeded in downzoning much of the neighborhood–both houses and apartment buildings–from high to low-density (R6 to R2). The inclusion of apartment buildings was done with the hope “that the properties would, if reconstructed, be redeveloped as single and two family homes.”

23 units, constructed in 1930. Downzoned to R2 (two-family) in 1975.
20 units, constructed in 1923. Downzoned to R2 in 1975.
6 units, constructed in 1913. Downzoned to R2 in 1975.

The Gentrification² Years

After declaring victory on the zoning issue, LHENA shifted focus towards promoting the restoration of single-family homes. Boarding houses were a particular target. In 1978, a LHENA-sponsored home tour proudly featured former boarding houses in the process of gentrification rehabilitation. Residents were celebrated in newspaper profiles for restoring their boarding houses to single-family homes. Neighborhood leaders would brag about rooming house conversions in their candidate bios. The boarding house nostalgia we’ve seen expressed in recent years, primarily as a product of the debate over the fate of the boarding house at 2320 Colfax, came as a shock to anyone familiar with LHENA history; when the group’s board of directors took up the issue of 2320 Colfax in 1992, they decided they were simply “opposed to the concept of a rooming house.”

In the early ’80s, LHENA took on the urgent task of preventing single-family homes from being “chopped up” into duplexes. The enormous house at 2400 Bryant Ave was eventually saved by the combined efforts of a LHENA committee and Calhoun Realty (it was recently promoted for sale at $1.2 million with a drone flyover video; a gentrification preservation success story if I’ve ever heard one). In 1986, the organization’s president editorialized that LHENA should take advantage of favorable interest rates and “redouble efforts to work with realtors to attract good buyers” with the goal of “reverting some duplexes and boarding houses to single family.”

This is not to say that I’m offended by the idea of purchasing and converting an old duplex or boarding house to a single-family home. But it’s important to acknowledge the history. In my time as an observer of neighborhood politics, I have heard protests of “gentrification” from the mouths of people who have restored their homes to single family, who would now like to downzone Lowry Hill East and have it frozen in time with an all-consuming historic district. People have even used boarding house residents as an anti-development cudgel while advocating for turning the same boarding house into a single-family home or a boutique “urban hotel.”

Allow me to quote myself, from an alternate dimension where I have written a much snarkier blog post:

It’s a legitimately lousy situation when boarding house residents are forced to find a new home. But that’s nothing new in this neighborhood. The Wedge has a past plagued by persistent gentrification. These senseless acts of renovation can’t be stopped; it’s simply too embedded in the neighborhood culture.

Good luck gentrifying the neighborhood, Scott and Linda.

2002-2004: Apartment Moratorium and Rezoning

In 2002, LHENA again took up the issue of rezoning. Council Member Dan Niziolek assisted in those efforts by introducing a moratorium on the construction of apartment buildings. The moratorium would last for 20 months, giving LHENA the time to chart a course for rezoning.
Stakeholders included former renters and current non-renters.
LHENA’s rezoning subcommittee met for nearly a year, starting in May 2003. One of the more hilarious (or frightening) tasks performed by the subcommittee was sending volunteers house to house looking for illegal units. Intelligence gathered on these missions was later passed on to the city so that the illegal housing could be, in CPED’s words, “alleviated.” But the most notable result of the rezoning effort was LHENA’s 2004 plan to completely eliminate high-density zoning categories (R5, R6) from Franklin Avenue south to 28th Street, affecting a total of 244 parcels. This would have applied even to existing apartment buildings, with the idea that if the property was redeveloped (or destroyed in a fire, for example), it could not legally be rebuilt at its current level of density.
The LHENA proposal would also have rezoned 69 parcels to single-family (R1A), a category that did not (and still does not) exist in the neighborhood. This is how CPED characterized LHENA’s push for a six block “single family core” in 2004:

One of the most vocalized issues from the LHENA rezoning sub-committee was their commitment to preserving single family homes. Since much of the neighborhood is zoned R2B, many of the original single-family structures have been preserved as duplex conversions…

Planning staff do not support the neighborhood’s preference for single family development over duplexes, and have not identified a City policy that would support individually rezoning single-family homes…

Additionally, the presence of duplexes in this neighborhood provides for a more affordable mix of housing. It offers more rental opportunities beyond the typical apartment complex, as well as chances for affordable ownership. 

The city had its own plan for the neighborhood, which would still have resulted in significant downzoning. This proposal cut almost in half the number of parcels zoned high-density R6, rezoning most of them as medium-density R4. After negotiations with the neighborhood, the city offered the concession of increasing–from 64 to 115–the number of downzoned properties. But LHENA wanted to downzone over 300 properties, and was unwilling to compromise. 
CPED proposal (left) vs. LHENA proposal (right)

In an email from the time, Council Member Dan Niziolek is described as having a “concern” that LHENA’s proposal would not “maintain a transit appropriate density.” LHENA’s plan for a single family core, and outright elimination of high-density zoning–for a neighborhood bounded by bus service on Hennepin and Lyndale Avenues–was too extreme, even for Niziolek; and remember, Niziolek was sympathetic enough to LHENA’s cause that he kickstarted the process with a 20-month apartment building moratorium.

As rezoning discussions came to a close, the Wedge newspaper reported that “if the city does not accept the Wedge plan, [LHENA] would like [zoning] to remain as is.” With LHENA refusing to budge, neither proposal was adopted. When today’s downzoning proponents talk about the development “target” that R6 zoning places on a property, it should be noted that a large number of those R6 properties would have been rezoned to R4 more than 10 years ago if LHENA had accepted CPED’s proposal.

2005-2015: Backdoor Downzoning

Shortly after the rezoning fell apart, LHENA began its pursuit of a historic district. They used funds received from the city’s NRP program to pay for a 2005 historic study. The chairman of LHENA’s NRP preservation subcommittee named two primary reasons for pursuing the historic district: one was preservation, and the other was to use it as a tool of rezoning: “to make development like that which occurred in the ’60s and ’70s more difficult.”

In 2008, the city was willing to give LHENA some of what it wanted by offering a historic district twice the size of what was recommended in the study the neighborhood commissioned three years earlier. But many residents involved in the process had their sights set on a massive historic district extending “from 28th St. to the tip of the neighborhood.” The 2008 plan went nowhere, amid concerns within LHENA “that acceptance of this proposal could limit future possibilities for expansion.”

A successful effort to designate a historic district in 2015, initiated by Council Member Lisa Bender, was met with similar all-or-nothing opposition. One of the opponents was the previous Council Member, Meg Tuthill–LHENA founder, and veteran of the 1975 and 2004 rezoning efforts. She dismissed the modestly-sized historic district as unnecessary in an area already zoned low-density: “The designation is a ‘feel good’ ruse for the city, pretending to care about preservation.” This reflects the fairly common belief among anti-development activists that downzoning and historic districts are interchangeable tools. According to this line of thinking, city planners who would enact both policies in the same place are engaging in trickery.

Size of the 2015 historic designation was disappointing for some.

The Future: Downzone, Gentrify, Repeat?

Before I’d ever been to Minneapolis, I looked at some maps–not a map of historic places, not a zoning map, but a transit map. I noted the high-frequency bus routes serving Lowry Hill East. I studied a Google map, and I noted the proximity of grocery stores, and other amenities made possible by higher density housing. I’m fortunate there were affordable 50-year-old apartment buildings when I arrived. And I hope for future policies that allow neighborhoods to keep changing, so that 50 years from now there will still be 50-year-old apartment buildings to rely on.

I have concerns about taking one of the city’s most walkable, transit-accessible, bike-friendly neighborhoods, located on the edge of downtown, and freezing it in place. In the 1970s, Lowry Hill East was zoned entirely high-density–but that is no longer the case. The activists of the 1970s successfully protected the low-density character of the neighborhood’s interior. Still, there are those with predictions of imminent neighborhood destruction who would now like to restart the downzoning process. Based on the neighborhood history, I have my doubts about the kind of proposal this process leads to.

¹ The house is still a non-conforming triplex, thanks to a system that allows the city to disregard the advisory opinions of neighborhood organizations.
² The author’s repeated use of the word “gentrification” is not appropriate, and he does not endorse abuse of the word by others.