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Residents push for tool to shape density debate

Posted by: Eric Roper Updated: January 30, 2014 - 12:33 PM

Worried that dense development is encroaching on the city’s single-family housing stock, a crowd of homeowners packed into City Hall Tuesday looking for a more powerful tool to fight back.

They are pushing for the creation of so-called “conservation districts,” which would allow a neighborhood to define the characteristics of an area and block development that is deemed out-of-scale. They were joined by two recently ousted council members, Meg Tuthill and Diane Hofstede.  

The conservation district ordinance, authored by council member Cam Gordon, has not yet reached the largely pro-density City Council. The chair of the city’s zoning and planning committee, Lisa Bender, has already said she has concerns it will be used to block specific development during a period of growth for the city, however.

Attendees largely hailed from Uptown’s Lowry Hill East neighborhood, the Marcy-Holmes neighborhood and Prospect Park neighborhood. Lowry Hill East and Marcy-Holmes have experienced dramatic growth in recent years, largely through the construction of four- to six-story mixed-use development projects.

Conservation districts would allow neighbors to limit development facets such as height, setbacks and landscape features beyond what the current zoning of those districts allows.

Many meeting attendees said the current language requiring two-thirds of property owners to consent to creating a conservation district was too stringent. Renters do not receive a vote, under the current language. The creation of a district would ultimately be up to the City Council.

“We do most things in this country by 51 percent,” said Florence Littman of Prospect Park. “You don’t normally need a supermajority. So I think it really doesn’t make sense to have anything higher than 51 percent.”

Kathleen Kullberg of Lowry Hill East, which includes huge swaths of Hennepin and Lyndale Avenues, said they originally envisioned making the entire neighborhood a conservation district. But the current language requiring a majority of the properties in a district to embody a certain style would make that difficult, given several new developments near Lake Street.   

“This southern end of our neighborhood is now all high-density high-rise[s] along the Midtown Greenway,” Kullberg said. “That is rapidly becoming the notable signature of our neighborhood and not people in their houses.”

John Bode, also of Lowry Hill East, was most concerned about sun, given the solar panels on his roof. “Has anybody thought about conserving our sun rights?” he said, adding, “I would hate to have somebody build a building and block my sun rights.”

Tuthill said she believes the current smaller-unit housing trend does not accommodate recently married couples and residents over 55 years old, who she has watched “boogey to the suburbs.”

“That 55-plus housing that I want in my city is the same as what our families want, especially our new immigrants: two and three bedrooms,” Tuthill said. “I am not going to sell my four-bedroom house and go down to a studio apartment. That’s crazy. We want two and three bedroom apartments as well.”

Cordelia Pierson, president of the Marcy-Holmes neighborhood association, said historic preservation efforts in places like Dinkytown are being unfairly maligned as anti-growth.

“What I’m hearing from people is we want to grow,” Pierson said. “This is a perfect time for the city to help engage a broad community in conversation about how we grow and how we preserve our sense of place as we grow.”

One of the only opposing voices in the room Tuesday was Jeremy Power, a builder from southwest Minneapolis. Neighborhoods in that segment of the city are grappling with developers who tear down homes to build much larger ones or condominiums in their place.

But he said creating onerous districts would only make homes elsewhere in the neighborhood more expensive, adding that zoning is a more appropriate tool to shape development. “I think it’s wrong for the neighborhoods to be able to dictate what people can build or remodel, to a degree,” Power said.

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