Why I Voted for the Minneapolis 2040 Plan
On October 29, the Minneapolis City Planning Commission voted to forward the draft Minneapolis 2040 Comprehensive Plan to the City Council, recommending approval. The plan sets goals, policies, and action steps to create the kind of city that we would like to be in 2040. It’s something we’re required by state law to do every 10 years. Excluding the appendices, it’s about 250 pages long, but there are a lot of pictures.
It was a long process leading up to that meeting! Planning staff started engaging the Planning Commission a couple years ago. In between that and the public hearing, there had been hundreds of individual outreach efforts to groups across the city, and there was an effort made to try to engage people who have been historically un- or under-represented in these types of things.
There are a great many things in the plan. There are 14 goals, which we hope to achieve with 93 policies in 11 topics, covering everything from fair housing to social connectedness to air quality. Each policy has a number of action steps, which are typically more general, e.g. “encourage pedestrian scale lighting,” and will eventually inform more specific regulations.
Most of the public discussion, though, has been about the built form map. We continued our existing policy of focusing growth around transit corridors (including bus routes) and also introduced the idea of allowing up to three units by right on residential lots across the city.
I will readily admit that much of the controversy in that public discussion stems from some apparent contradictions. On one hand, the Minneapolis 2040 plan would be the most progressive and far-reaching land use plan in America in the modern era. Which sounds dramatic! But the thing is—and we haven’t done a great job of communicating this—these changes will necessarily be very incremental.
That’s it: we want to allow triplexes. There’s no mandate, no City-funded initiative. No one is banning single family houses. Those triplexes would have to be within the building envelope of what’s currently allowed, so where you can currently build a 3,000 square foot single family house, you could build three 1,000 square foot units.
It’s just an option. An option to age in place by subdividing your big, old empty house. Or an option to create more affordable housing units in parts of the city that currently have a $100,000 down-payment toll booth set up at their entrances. Or an option to keep your big, old empty house the same as it’s been for 80 years.
I think it’s extremely useful to reflect on our current zoning. Right now, in Minneapolis, there are thousands of single family houses zoned for something more than single family houses. Check out the map! In neighborhoods across the city, most of the area between 38th Street and Lowry Avenue, in Whittier and Marcy-Holmes and Longfellow, there are houses zoned R2 and higher. Today, there are single family houses on commercial streets like Hennepin Avenue that are zoned for multi-family buildings. There are single family houses inside the downtown freeway loop in Loring Park and Elliot Park.
And our experience has been that not too many of those houses get torn down to build a duplex, or triplex, or apartment building. It happens, but the vast majority of housing units that have been added in the past ten years have been added on vacant lots, surface parking, single story commercial buildings, and the like. The handful of houses that have been demolished for multi-family residential pales in comparison to the number of houses that have been torn down for larger, more expensive single family houses.
Another case study is our legalization of accessory dwelling units (ADUs) about four years ago. That was the thing where a property owner could add a dwelling unit in their basement or over their garage. In four years, something like 150 ADUs have been permitted, and some portion of that has been legalization of units that had already been built, off the books. That’s not a ton, and I have frequently thought to myself that it’s a little weird how much attention ADUs get when they’re such a small portion of the housing units being built.
So I’d be shocked if 50 new triplexes a year were built by 2023. Which would be less than one per neighborhood, and the equivalent of a single smallish-medium apartment building. Probably not evenly distributed, but still—not really Robert Moses/urban renewal-level destruction. The red signs are a bit much.
Outside of the triplexes, stuff that appears dramatic on paper in Minneapolis 2040 is not that different from the growth the city has been experiencing for the past decade. Right now, we have a pretty wacky hodgepodge of zoning that doesn’t line up with the other policies we’ve adopted, so we end up with many applications for rezonings for individual projects that are clearly in line with our existing adopted plans, but appear to be developer giveaways to laypeople, and a lot of unnecessary conflict is generated. We’re trying to add more predictability to the system. Yes, a five story building on Lyndale Avenue is probably appropriate.
My general sense of things is that a lot of the opposition to Minneapolis 2040 didn’t have to do with the actual things in the plan, or even the scary, nebulous idea of change itself, but that for several decades, there’s been a relatively small group of hyper-involved people in Minneapolis who have dominated discussions about policy, and they’ve generally gotten the attention that they want. This group skews much older, wealthier, and whiter than the city as a whole, and it has disproportionately more homeowners than renters. Everyone in Minneapolis in 2018 is eager to talk in the vaguest (but also somehow strongest?) way about things like systemic and institutional racism, but fewer are willing to address specific examples of it when they come up.
An effort was made to take the needs and wants of the other half million people in the city into consideration, the folks who were not lucky enough to snag a house in Minneapolis for $60,000 in 1988. That smaller group of maaaaybe a couple hundred people did not like that they did not get the attention they were accustomed to, and things snowballed from there, with, at best, a great deal of active misinformation.
And you know, to be clear, a lot of those folks did a lot of good work in the past, and many still do. They’ve been around for a long time, before we had fancy fermentation bars or whatever in Whittier, when things were a bit dicier and we were more concerned with managing decline than growth. And in fact, based on feedback from many of those folks, changes were made in between the initial draft plan and what the Planning Commission voted on. Fourplexes changed to triplexes, and the corridors further from downtown that were maybe kind of a stretch were hemmed in a bit.
There has also been some environmentally-themed criticism of things not directly related to the land use map, from bird-safe glass to stormwater management to sustainable construction methods. But without any exceptions I can think of, they’re all in the plan already, in the action steps, you just have to read the whole thing. I even wrote a couple things down at the public hearing and then realized they were already in there—true story. A holdover 1970s association with the literal color green, e.g. grass, with things that are good for the environment has not been helpful.
The stakes are extremely high, right now, in 2018. It is absolutely within the realm of possibility that human civilization might fall apart this century. We all believe that, I think? Minneapolis is a pretty blue city. We’re supposed to believe in climate change and the existential threat it poses to this entire species. It’s starting to happen. Glaciers are melting, and sea levels are rising. Storms are getting stronger. Mass displacement is already occurring. The stuff from the Al Gore movie is starting to play out. I’m 28. My friends are starting to have kids. What’s the world going to be like in 2040?
At this point, much of this apocalyptic future is probably baked in and irreversible, and we’re going to need to figure out how to welcome a lot of South Floridians into cities like Minneapolis. But some of the worst possible outcomes of climate change are still avoidable. And we’re not going to avoid those outcomes without making intentional and meaningful changes to land use and transportation in our cities. Recycling our batteries isn’t going to do it. Not allowing new growth in Minneapolis proper not only displaces lower-income people in Minneapolis, but it pushes growth out of the city into the suburbs, where people have to drive more, and live on more land in less energy-efficient housing.
In 2018, transportation is the largest source of carbon emissions in Minneapolis, and there are many energy efficiency improvements to be gained by building more sustainably—which means building more things closer together, in walkable neighborhoods with good transit and bike infrastructure. The time has passed for complaints about not being able to park in front of your house. You could always clean out your garage.