Laura Culbertson doesn’t need a lot of space to live large in Minneapolis.
The 34-year-old account executive for the Minnesota Vikings lives in a 495-square-foot apartment downtown near the Mississippi River, with plans to move to an even smaller one this fall. The lack of space is made up for by a ton of building amenities, plus proximity to an urban core.
“I pack my life, my schedule, with fun things to do,” she said. “So I’m rarely home.”
Development officials at Minneapolis City Hall are now considering a rule change that could help bring denser housing projects with smaller living spaces to neighborhoods outside of downtown, as city leaders strive to boost the city’s population. The proposal coincides with national trends toward so-called micro-apartments on the coasts, which haven’t taken hold in Minneapolis but did inspire a project here with studios as small as 370 square feet.
The change, slated for discussion at the city planning commission Monday night, would eliminate a provision that restricts the number of units in a building by defining how many can fit on a given plot of land. The provision, which doesn’t apply downtown, is one of several restrictions on residential density built into the city’s zoning code.
Restricting the number of units sometimes has strange consequences. The city might approve a building with 50 two-bedroom apartments, for example, but not the same building with 100 one-bedroom units.
“[The change] allows higher density in the city,” said Ted Tucker, president of the planning commission, an influential citizen advisory board. “But it also allows for smaller units to be developed affordably. We don’t want a situation where only the very well off can afford to live in the center of the city.”
The planning commission determined that the change was necessary after repeatedly granting developers exemptions from the rule, known technically as “minimum lot area per dwelling unit” or MLA.
Planning staff estimated that about 20 percent of major projects have received variances in the last four years.
Other limitations on density would remain in place. They include height restrictions (often between two and six stories outside downtown), requirements to build resident parking, and a ratio of total floor area to lot size that limits the bulk of the building. Less dense housing zones would also retain the MLA limitations, aligning with practices in St. Paul, where no such requirement exists in business districts or most neighborhood districts.
“The intended effect is to allow a little bit more flexibility in the market for deciding how big of dwelling units to provide,” said city planning manager Jason Wittenberg, adding that it will also streamline the city’s development process.
Council Member Gary Schiff, the author of the change, said it is part of a larger effort to adopt a zoning code that focuses more on the exterior of the building – its height, shadows and relationship to the street. Schiff said growing density was not driving the change, since that would be better accomplished by rezoning areas of the city.
“By not obsessing on how the inside of the building is used, we pay attention more to the way that the building affects development patterns in the neighborhood and affects the overall livability of the neighborhood,” said Schiff, chair of the city’s zoning and planning committee.
‘Winnebago’ to ‘Airstream’
The poster child for the smaller unit developments is taking shape in the Marcy-Holmes neighborhood at 628 University Av. SE. Developers are building a four-story building with 39 units aimed primarily at University of Minnesota students. The average size is about 500 square feet, with studios clocking in at 370 square feet — just 20 square feet more than the city’s minimum.
To make the units more versatile, architects are examining smaller kitchen appliances, Murphy beds that become couches and tables that fold down to save space.
“Instead of buying the 50-foot Winnebago, they’re buying the 25-foot Airstream … and having the same types of living environments because of the convertibility of the interior,” said Aaron Roseth, an architect on the project. Because of the MLA restriction, developers needed a higher-density zoning classification for the land — a move City Hall does not take lightly.
Kelly Doran, a developer involved with many new projects near the University of Minnesota, said the MLA requirement prevented him from building about 75 smaller units — despite having the same number of bedrooms — at a project called The Knoll just west of Dinkytown.
“You’re forcing people to build bigger units,” he said. “Which isn’t necessarily what the community wants or market wants.”
Of course, smaller living isn’t for everyone. While Culbertson is happy living in a small apartment for now, she would likely have to make a change when she gets a family. Her friends who gotten married have been buying condos in the North Loop area.
“That’s probably the next logical step,” Culbertson said.