70s-Era Planner Confesses Role in Decades-Old Downzoning Plot

In commenting on the city’s current plan to downzone the Wedge neighborhood, former Minneapolis city planner Perry Thorvig has given us some historical perspective. He starts off by celebrating the results of the 1975 downzoning:

The zoning scheme adopted in 1975 must have worked. It was gratifying to me and I’m sure many neighborhood residents, including former council member Meg Tuthill, that the recent study by city planner Brian Schaffer found that very little new development has occurred in the neighborhood since that rezoning was done forty years ago.

(note that while Mr. Thorvig appreciated the 1975 downzoning, he worries the 2016 proposal may go too far in creating non-conformities.)

Message from a historical city planner.

The kind of housing the city and activists stopped from being built decades ago–the 2½-story walk-up–is what is now referred to as naturally occurring affordable housing (built with private rather than public money). As a result of what we did way back then, we now have less affordable housing.

Today, there’s lots of local renter advocacy happening around the 1970ish 2½-story walk-up. Many such buildings are being sold and renovated with rents higher than current tenants can afford. This has led to local government allocating money to purchase these buildings in order to preserve some tiny portion of what’s become a dwindling supply of affordable units in the region. To the extent we devote public money to saving them, we value the benefits these buildings provide. But are we moving towards a zoning code that matches those values?

Look at these headlines and the very similar buildings pictured underneath:
After all these decades we’re still pursuing a policy (restrictive zoning) aimed at pleasing low-density property owners who would very much not like to have their beautiful, desirable neighborhood “destroyed” by dense multifamily housing; and on the other end we’re forced to mitigate the effect of that policy (painfully expensive housing) by spending a woefully inadequate pool of public housing money.

What are we doing?

It’s 2016 and we’re still downzoning.

If you’d like to weigh in on downzoning the Wedge, it’s item 5 on the agenda for the next meeting of the Minneapolis City Planning Commission, Tuesday, Nov. 1st, at 4:30 PM.

Who gets to live on our nicest streets?

Alex Cecchini has written a nicely comprehensive post outlining all the reasons it’s a bad idea to force dense housing out of neighborhood interiors and onto the most noisy, polluted, dangerous streets in the city.

It’s a timely post because the Wedge neighborhood is about to be downzoned. As Alex writes, the last time the neighborhood was downzoned, in 1975, it was happening in parallel with an equally successful movement to force dangerous high-speed car traffic out of the neighborhood’s interior (a good thing). In other words, the city and neighborhood activists were making the neighborhood interior nicer/safer at the same time they were telling a certain kind of person in a certain kind of housing they have no business living there.

Read Alex’s post for all the reasons why that’s a problem.

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).

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 <brian.schaffer@minneapolismn.gov> and City Council Member Lisa Bender <Lisa.Bender@minneapolismn.gov> with your feedback.

City Council “Outraged” Over DNR Downzoning to Benefit Elected Officials

Two members of the Minneapolis City Council have expressed serious concern over what they see as the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources pushing special land-use restrictions that would protect the proverbial backyards of certain unnamed elected officials. The comments were made during a June 9 Zoning and Planning Committee discussion about new rules for the Mississippi River Corridor Critical Area. The MRCCA is an area along the Mississippi River subject to “special land development regulations that protect and preserve unique natural, recreational, transportation, and cultural features.”

Council President Johnson called the DNR’s proposal “distressing” and joked that she’d like to make a special deal to protect her own backyard: “If I could carve some stuff out too, I might do that.” The area in question—half of Nicollet Island and an adjacent area encompassing Boom Island Park—includes the homes of State Rep. Phyllis Kahn and former Minneapolis City Council member Diane Hofstede.

Council member Lisa Goodman said she was “outraged” and described the DNR’s proposal as “last-minute changes made for political purposes to provide downzoning and protections for elected officials and their families and not anyone else.” She added that the DNR’s map “boundaries make absolutely no sense” other than as a political favor: “There’s no other explanation for why half of Nicollet Island would be in a further-protected area in the middle of our central business district.”

City Council members suggest the DNR is attempting to “downzone” the area in yellow as a favor to the elected officials who live there.

One consequence of the DNR’s proposed map would be a restriction on building height that conflicts with the city’s current code. Nearly 50 properties currently zoned R5 would fall under an MRCCA maximum height of 35 feet, far less than the existing Minneapolis zoning which allows for 56 feet.

Both Johnson and Goodman expressed a strong desire for Minneapolis to maintain “flexibility” and independence on land-use decisions, with Johnson citing the benefits of “billions and billions of dollars worth of investment” along the river in recent years. Goodman worried it would create another layer of zoning confusion for residents: “Our zoning is what should prevail and not some DNR-imposed fake rezoning that would give people some sort of feeling like we’re going to be capping heights and development and distance from the river.”

A draft response to the DNR proposal written by Minneapolis planning staff notes the area in question contains buildings which are already taller than the proposed limits, and points out this is an urban center designated by city policy for future growth. The letter says it would be “short-sighted to designate this area long term as low density residential” and requests the area be reclassified to match adjacent “urban” districts.

In addition to feedback from the city on these new rules, the DNR is accepting comments from the public until July 6, 2016.

Draft of LHE Historic District Study

We have obtained a draft of the Lowry Hill East Residential Historic District designation study. Is your house “contributing” or “non-contributing”? It’s time to start judging your neighbors.

Here’s a neat detail. There are a cluster of houses on Bryant Ave (2415, 2417, 2420, 2424, 2425) possibly built as duplexes, which are now single-family homes. LHENA tried to downzone a few of those addresses from R2 (two-family) to R1 (single-family) in the great rezoning battle of 2004. This must have been upsetting to our neighborhood’s “Healy originalists” who prefer to interpret zoning as the Master Builder intended.

1899: Healy builds duplex. Anon pamphleteer says: “Greedy developer. No respect for our n’hood of single fam homes.” pic.twitter.com/UNn8hh9Mgk

— Wedge LIVE! (@WedgeLIVE) May 9, 2015

I can clarify some uncertainty regarding features of the very interesting house at 2404 Colfax:

It is not clear if the fence dates to the period of significance. Also, the decorative spindle work and bargeboard are very unusual to see in a Colonial Revival house. While there are no specific building permit references to this element of the design, it is not clear if this dates to the period of significance.

As first reported by the Wedge newspaper, Bob and Jeanie McAloon built that fence (and other stuff) in nineteen hundred and ninety-three.

The Desire for a More Expansive Historic District

Preserve our historic priorities.

Last September, Council Member Lisa Bender’s office held an informational meeting regarding a proposed Lowry Hill East historic district. It was a homeowners-only affair, intended for those whose properties would be included, though there were plenty of party crashers: eager homeowners from outside the proposed boundaries, a guy from Kingfield, and at least two renters.

I showed up late, right about the time it devolved into a sort of call and response routine; people were slapping each other on the back over their very, very historic properties (Hey Joe, I don’t see your house on this map, it’s pretty historic… Yeah and what about Bill, his beautiful home isn’t on here either). Our former Council Member was there to suggest that City Planner John Smoley take a historic drive-by on the 2400 block of Aldrich. It was an amazing scene (in 2017, this publication will be endorsing whichever Council candidate promises to hold the greatest number of wildly entertaining historic district info sessions).

Earlier this month, Bender officially nominated the Lowry Hill East Residential Historic District. This was followed late last week by an article in which former Council Member Tuthill says it would have been preferable to put the historic district in areas with many fewer historic homes: “I’m much, much more concerned about the protection of the housing stock north of 24th Street and south of 26th.”

In the same article, former Tuthill aide and current LHENA President Leslie Foreman describes the desire of some neighborhood residents to expand the historic district as far south as 28th Street. I can confirm the accuracy of this statement because the guy directly behind me at the September meeting was muttering “the whole damn Wedge” in response to Smoley’s question about the preferred composition of the historic district.

[As long as we have the recently departed Tuthill campaign weighing in, it would be nice to hear why they didn’t historicize and/or rezone the neighborhood during their term (has anyone been able to figure out what they were working on from 2010 to 2014?). All the talk over the last year gives the impression of a neighborhood on the brink; you’d think these guys never had a friend at City Hall.]

Some of the dissatisfaction with this proposal has to do with the fact that the included properties, while certainly the most deserving of historic status, are already zoned R2 (low density, two-family district). New development isn’t a threat in this area. For the anti-density folks, this historic designation won’t solve their problem; it just means a bunch of regulatory headaches for homeowners, without any of the desired downzoning-like side-effects.

The blocks contained within this historic district were rezoned to low-density in 1975; this is true of most of the neighborhood south of 24th Street. LHENA, which was formed in 1970 to advance the cause of downzoning, declared victory. The northern part of the neighborhood, however, remains an area of high density zoning, which explains the current obsession with the idea of a North Wedge Historic District (Save the apex from R6!). Rezoning the north Wedge is the final piece of unfinished business in a 45-year battle against apartment buildings (and their resident dealers, pimps, prostitutes, and motorcycle gangs).

November 1975.
Everything was so explicit back then.
R6 zoning (dark green) dominates the north Wedge. Kitty cats added for effect.

Aside from zoning-related geography, there’s a strategic reason for the anti-development crowd to be skeptical of this historic district: putting all your nicest old homes in one basket could mean losing the leverage to cram a bunch of undeserving properties into some future Super-Sized Wedge Historic District. That dynamic helps explain why a nearly identical historic district plan died in 2008 amid neighborhood concerns, reported in the Wedge newspaper, “that acceptance of this proposal could limit future possibilities for expansion.”

This is not to say the proposed district doesn’t have its share of fans. Council Member Bender has indicated the response from affected homeowners has been largely positive. And despite the desire of some residents for a far larger historic district, the LHENA Board put their symbolic weight behind the nomination last week. The organization has also formed a “historic” committee, which will no doubt have expansion on its agenda long into the future.


Check out my For NIMBYs series on Amazon.