The Star Tribune Editorial Board recently wrote about the need for more density in the Twin Cities. This is not a new conversation. Minneapolis grew by 40,000 people in the last 20 years and is forecast to grow another 50,000 in the next 20 years. The real question isn’t about whether we are going to grow. It is about how and where we will grow.
Minneapolis grew over the past 20 years primarily by concentrating new development in downtown, around the University of Minnesota and in high-frequency transit nodes. This created a residential area with more than 35,000 people. Students finally can live near the university. New apartments and condos sprouted throughout the city in neighborhoods that previously were primarily single-family homes. Twenty years ago, this was called appropriately “smart growth.”
We could continue this successful approach, but with the Minneapolis 2040 plan, the city has instead proposed radical changes. It has proposed upzoning the entire city. This would make it possible to bulldoze any single-family house and replace it with a fourplex. It has also proposed allowing 15- to 20-story towers in most parts of the city. Uptown and our signature Chain of Lakes would become ringed with tower after tower, as in Manhattan. None of this housing would be required to have parking. Much of the density is dependent upon a dramatic expansion of the bus system that is not planned for or funded by the Metropolitan Council.
This is part of a national pro-developer agenda called “YIMBY” (“Yes In My Back Yard”). Pro-development groups have wrapped themselves in the flags of racial equity, economic justice and climate change to pursue reduced requirements for developers. They push this agenda though social media, where the focus is broad-brush and not on the details. It is not a coincidence that the Editorial Board is writing about this now. And the YIMBY movement is supported with serious money.
None of these changes will create new affordable housing. Construction costs are too high for affordable housing to be built without government intervention. Moreover, the plan will demolish existing affordable homes and replace them with market-rate housing. None of these changes will address historic patterns of discrimination, which would require building more affordable housing. None of these changes will help with climate change.
Who is harmed? Families with children under the age of 18 make up 40 percent of the city’s population. This plan would bulldoze single-family homes, where 80 percent of Minneapolis’ three- and four-bedroom units exist. It would replace them with micro-apartments, studios and one-bedroom apartments, housing that families with children cannot use. This plan would build housing without parking, which doesn’t work for families with children, the elderly and the disabled. It would demolish lower-value homes, which are the most common investment vehicles families use to build wealth. Upzoning the city would increase property values, making the city more unaffordable overall. No one would win except developers.
No other city in the U.S. has taken this radical approach. Seattle, with one of the worst housing markets in the country, is experimenting with upzoning specific neighborhoods to provide a rational growth plan. But even with its severe housing problems, Seattle is not proposing upzoning the whole city.
Such a move in Minneapolis would be a dramatic change and is not needed to accommodate the reasonable growth projected for the city. We don’t need to hand the keys of the city to developers. We need to continue the successful path we have been on — concentrating growth in our existing walkable, transit-accessible neighborhoods; continuing to build housing at high-frequency transit nodes; and focusing growth where it makes sense.
Lisa McDonald is a former member of the Minneapolis City Council who represented the 10th Ward. She wrote this article on behalf of Minneapolisforeveryone.org.