Like a popular kid with too many dates to the prom, a city with a teardown problem fails to draw much sympathy. But that doesn’t make a decision any easier for an inexperienced Minneapolis City Council contemplating a moratorium while caught between two strong gravitational forces.
From one side, there’s the tug of voters driven by affection for their idyllic southwest neighborhoods and by fear of the changes that new, larger houses might bring, and from the other, there’s the city’s broader need to take maximum advantage of the current back-to-the-city real estate trend. Without a larger tax base, Minneapolis won’t be able to maintain services, upgrade schools and parks, or add the transit features required of a nationally competitive city.
No matter which side has the stronger pull, a moratorium on teardowns and major rebuilding projects in Linden Hills and four other popular southwest neighborhoods isn’t the right answer. It sends the wrong message to investors; it encourages the kind of inefficient development (sprawl) that harms the environment, and it punishes developers and prospective city residents who have been following the rules. In short, it brings a sledgehammer to a job that demands more precision.
Yes, there have been too many instances of careless, inconsiderate contractors piling debris on a neighbor’s property; blocking sidewalks and streets with vehicles, dumpsters and portable toilets; cutting down trees unnecessarily; causing drainage problems, and ignoring work-time limits. City Council Member Linea Palmisano of the 13th Ward was right to demand that builders “build like you live next door.”
But surely the city can crack down on offenders without proceeding with the moratorium that Palmisano imposed three weeks ago. Edina offers an appealing model: an “ombudsman” who fills the communications gap between neighbors and developers and ensures that city rules are followed at every point in the project.
As for complaints about the size and design of new houses, that’s a stickier matter. For now, we’re unconvinced that major changes are needed in reforms that the council passed in 2007. Given today’s market and the typical size of a southwest Minneapolis lot, it’s not unreasonable for a 1,200-square-foot postwar rambler to be replaced by a two-story, 2,400-square-foot Craftsman with a double garage. That seems to be the pattern. There are exceptions, of course — a few hideously incompatible houses and a few more that rise to the scale of suburban “McMansions” — but not all that many.
Rather than imposing a moratorium, the City Council should encourage reasonably scaled renewal projects in the city’s southwest corner while ensuring that builders respect the livability concerns of neighbors. Alongside those concerns, the council should weigh the wider benefits that renewal brings to the entire city. Minneapolis badly needs growth in its taxable assets.
After a public hearing last week, the city’s Planning and Zoning Committee halted the moratorium effort and approved a two-week continuation. Palmisano told the Star Tribune after the hearing that she hoped city officials and builders could agree on construction management principles before the next meeting on April 3.
Let’s hope they keep in mind that Minneapolis is not a wealthy city when measured against its peers. Median household incomes in the Denver, Seattle and Portland metro areas are comparable with those in the Twin Cities metro. City incomes in those cities are only slightly lower than in the surrounding suburbs, but median incomes in Minneapolis and St. Paul are 30 percent lower, according to census figures. That’s a big competitive disadvantage when it comes to sustaining urban services and building for the future.
The best way for Minneapolis to close the gap is to take full advantage of pent-up demand for city living. That includes reasonably sized and designed teardowns in the city’s southwest districts.