Have you ever pondered a fun thought experiment like “What would happen if everyone in my city flushed their toilets at the same time — never before has a comprehensive plan specifically authorized this many theoretical toilets operating in sync.” That’s pretty close to the premise of the never-ending legal crusade to stop the Minneapolis 2040 Plan.
If you’ve been following along, you’ll know that back in 2018, some very wealthy pretend environmentalists created an entity called Smart Growth Minneapolis for the sole purpose of suing the city over triplexes. Now in 2023 — after ping ponging between district court, appeals court, and the state supreme court — this group has convinced a district court judge to take seriously the idea that every plot of land in the city is about to be built up to the fullest extent of the law, damaging the environment. So the judge has halted the 2040 Plan temporarily, as we wait for an environmental analysis (likely to be followed by yet more legal action contesting the validity of that analysis).
Not everything that is legally permitted to happen will actually happen all at the same time
Two points from the plaintiff’s argument which have won over the judge so far: (1) upzoning the roughly 47% of the city that used to be zoned exclusively for single-family homes will lead to (2) the potential full buildout of 150,000 new units. These two ideas relate to the most controversial part of the 2040 plan — swapping single-family zoning with triplex zoning.
When the lawsuit was filed in 2018, the result of the triplex change was a hypothetical. Now that it’s been in effect for nearly four years, we can judge the results. For the years 2020, 2021, and 2022 the city saw 44, 39, and 43 new units constructed in the 2-4 unit housing category. New single-family homes built during the same period: 74, 64, and 55. There’s no reason to think the numbers for 2023 will deviate significantly. This is not a dramatic transformation of the city’s low density neighborhoods. For context, Minneapolis has 194,500 units of housing, with 72,000 of those being single-family homes.
Why is Minneapolis building so few duplexes and triplexes, even though theoretically they’re legal to build (and if you assume full build out could result in 150,000 new units!!!)? It turns out, in this regard, the 2040 Plan is too restrictive. Fitting three households into the same building size as one is not so easy. As Council Member Lisa Goodman said in 2019: “I like to refer to it as the box can’t change. All that can change is how many families can live within the existing box. That was something that was determined during the 2040 process.”
Keep in mind, cities adopt new comprehensive plans every decade. We are four years into a 10 year plan. We’ve got a good sample of the 2040 Plan in action to show that we’re not anywhere near at risk of fully building out the zoning code (If you’re not convinced, we could look at our failure to fully build out the previous zoning code, but I won’t attempt that here).
5.1 Foshay Towers, 9.2 Target stores, 5.04 City Halls
The plaintiffs submitted expert analysis to the court that the difference between the pre- and post-2040 zoning codes (comparing new approvals to what they say would have been approved previously) amount to a height difference of 5.1 Foshay Towers, a square footage difference of 9.2 Target stores, and a difference in linear feet equivalent to 5.04 City Halls.
We’ve already established that this growth isn’t coming from the large portions of the city upzoned from single-family to triplex zoning. So where did the 9.2 Target stores come from? My somewhat informed hypothesis: much of this results from legalizing apartments on transit corridors. An example that comes immediately to mind, and approved the day of the judge’s order: a 32-unit solar-powered apartment building to be constructed on a lot formerly zoned single-family, just a half mile from a light rail station. A good way to build an extra 9.2 Target stores worth of housing is to approve a bunch of 4-6 story apartment buildings on transit corridors that used to be restricted to low density housing.
“The elimination of single-family zoning attracted the most attention. But it was at most the third most consequential change in the plan, obscuring a broader upzoning of major corridors and a wholesale elimination of parking minimums—all of this building on prior policies.”
I don’t think these people are for real
Some may not realize (the judge certainly disregarded it) that flowing from the goals of the 2040 plan are a series of changes to the way the city designs our streets. So ambitious is the new Transportation Action Plan that our political debates over streets have been more hotly contested in recent years than anything related to zoning (for example, see Hennepin and Bryant Avenues). Building streets with space for walking, biking, transit, trees and green features to manage stormwater — these new commitments for how to allocate public space are competing with the old expectation that these spaces be given over almost entirely to cars.
The people suing to stop the 2040 Plan’s supposed degradation of our environment are the same constituency who protest the installation of a bus lane or bike path. We’ve seen it. They basically admit as much when they include among their list of environmental grievances “increased parking constraints” resulting from the plan. Who are we to believe on matters of the environment: The world’s leading climate scientists who promote the benefits of dense, pedestrianized cities — or an entity created for the sole purpose of posing as an environmental group to sue the city over lack of parking?
The 2040 ship has sailed
Five years ago, Minneapolis politics was dominated by headline after headline about triplexes and upzoning; tense public meetings; passionate testimony at city hall; and countless irritating opinions in newspapers and social media. Minneapolis took on something politically hard, chewed it over for a year, then passed the 2040 Plan with a 12-1 city council vote and a mayoral signature. We set an example for other places who’ve since followed our lead. We’ve been at it long enough to celebrate having the results pay off. And now we have to put this plan on hold because some group* had a large enough pile of money to pursue a bad-faith premise in the courts for five years and counting.
It should be noted that earlier this year, the Minnesota Senate failed to follow the House’s lead and pass a fix to state law that would’ve exempted municipal comprehensive plans and stopped this lawsuit. The Minneapolis delegation in the Senate needs to make sure this is addressed in 2024.
Ultimately, the vision of the 2040 Plan is here to stay. We won that battle. It’s done. We’re not going back. But it’s frustrating to see a pro-environment plan — achieved by a lengthy and vigorous public debate — deferred temporarily by the twisted application of environmental protection laws.
*Smart Growth Minneapolis is unaffiliated with the group whose name they ripped off, Smart Growth America, a national organization with principles in direct opposition to SGM.