Is It Possible to Have Productive Neighborhood Conversations About Development?

Here’s a story about two six-story apartment proposals, from the same developer in adjacent neighborhoods. In both cases, city planners said the buildings were too big. But the differing approach from each neighborhood organization meant one was approved and the other has been scaled down significantly.

In the Wedge, a proposal for six stories and 119 apartments has been scaled down to four stories with 34 fewer units. It’s at 27th and Girard, right off Hennepin Ave — two blocks from a transit station and within easy walking distance of a handful of grocery stores. There’s an Ace hardware store and a Walgreens pharmacy about a minute’s walk out the front door. Kind of an ideal place for an apartment building.

Discussion at a June meeting of the Lowry Hill East Neighborhood Association (LHENA) focused mostly on the size of the building. But also assertions that this is a single-family neighborhood; bashing the neighborhood’s many 50-year-old apartment buildings; worries about all the future apartment dwellers who might look into a guy’s backyard (he even made a reference to pedophiles).

It wasn’t a focused or productive discussion. But that didn’t matter — they could have gotten what they wanted without wasting everyone’s time on a meeting. The city planner was already skeptical. The properties slated for redevelopment were downzoned a few years ago. Six stories was unlikely to be approved by the Planning Commission.

At another LHENA meeting yesterday, the developer revealed the greatly scaled-down building tailored to their concerns. Nobody seemed very happy about it. One disappointed resident put it this way: “Quite frankly I think most of the feedback is that we didn’t want it.” If you negotiate from a place of don’t build this, you aren’t likely to get anything in return. What nobody in the room tried to do was get something — a community benefit — in exchange.

Meanwhile in Whittier, a six story 146-unit building at 26th and Blaisdell faced similar obstacles. The city planner assigned to the project recommended against approving seven variances and the additional height.

But at a hearing on Monday, the Planning Commission approved the plan on a split vote (5-4 in favor of the additional height). Supportive testimony from members of the Whittier Alliance neighborhood organization’s Housing Issues Committee was decisive in convincing enough commissioners to approve the building.

Why did the neighborhood group offer their support? First, they surveyed the neighborhood and found that building height isn’t actually at the top of resident concerns. Whittier Alliance board member Aldona Martinka called it a “fairly unprecedented” engagement process around a single development project in Whittier. This included doorknocking and public meetings to determine the “values and priorities” of residents. Martinka described the survey results:

“When asked what they were hoping to see in the development, the majority of respondents named affordability at 73%, followed by eco-friendly design at 53%, and public use amenities at 35%. Only 24% named a smaller scale for the building as one of their top three priorities.” (83 respondents, a majority of whom live within three blocks of the site)

Informed by these priorities, the group from Whittier used their leverage. The project faced serious obstacles to receiving city approval without neighborhood support. The group negotiated with the developer to get some things in return for supporting the project:

  1. working with Whittier Alliance to develop a program where tenants can earn credit towards their rent by volunteering in the community,
  2. co-designing and co-managing a ground floor bike lounge space for community use as well as tenant use, and
  3. entering into a partnership where the neighborhood association leases spaces on the ground floor adjacent to the community space in order to ensure shared use and community access.

It really is possible to have productive conversations about development. Consider not asking a million questions about a “shadow study.” Try to get people into the room who don’t imagine pedophiles behind every apartment window. Think about your values and priorities. If you have significant leverage, do you really want to squander it all just to achieve a somewhat smaller building?

If productive conversations aren’t your thing, maybe you would enjoy a guide for how to better waste people’s time at public meetings?


Demand more parking. This is more than just a waste of time, you may actually be doing the developer a favor by distracting from legitimate criticism. In Minneapolis, larger apartment buildings near transit are only required to have one space for every two units. For buildings with 50 or fewer units, the parking requirement is zero. Developers commonly build more parking than is required by city ordinance. Parking policy in Minneapolis is extremely settled, and it’s moving in the direction of requiring less parking (the 2040 plan called for eliminating residential parking minimums entirely).

Ask to preserve your view. As city planner Peter Crandall put it at a recent Planning Commission meeting: “The city does not have policy that protects views from private property.”