Minneapolis, the city of the single-family home on a tree-lined boulevard, sees its future in the apartment towers rising 20 stories above busy downtown streets.
Several major projects underway illustrate a trend toward tightly packed, urban living that is playing out in cities across the United States, giving Minneapolis planners hope of recapturing population the city lost starting in the 1950s. More apartments and condominiums got the green light in Minneapolis this year than any in recent history -- about 2,800 in 22 new buildings so far.
"If we're going to compete in the 21st century as a competitive global city, we have to attract people who want to live in cities. And cities are dense, urban environments," said the city's director of community planning and economic development, Jeremy Hanson Willis.
Whether the entire city is ready for it is another question. Outside of downtown, dense developments are often met with stiff resistance from neighborhood groups.
"I think there's a value in the city that we respect the single-family residential community," said Bob Corrick, who chairs the land use committee of a neighborhood group that has been sparring for years with developers who want to put more high-rise housing on the north end of Lake Calhoun.
To keep the peace, city leaders hope to appeal to people's pocketbooks -- more units mean more people paying taxes -- and steer growth to underserved areas where dense housing could revitalize commercial corridors. Mayor R.T. Rybak said they include the West Bank, the intersection of Nicollet Avenue and Lake Street, the neighborhood around the Minneapolis Farmers Market, along the Hiawatha light rail line and around the future Vikings stadium.
"People make a mistake of thinking that our desire to grow the population means putting a high-rise on every corner," said Rybak, who emphasized the connection between new transit options and housing growth.
But at Nicollet and Lake, where city leaders hope to relocate Kmart and run streetcars on a reconnected Nicollet Avenue, tension seems inevitable. Erica Christ, president of the Whittier Alliance Board of Directors, is talking with residents about what kind of dense housing they would tolerate. "The neighborhood will object to anything that's over four stories," she said.
Reshaping the skyline
There are fewer obstacles downtown, where two prominent luxury apartment projects will eventually create 607 new units and reshape the city's skyline -- one rising to 36 stories in Loring Park, the other to 26 stories at 5th and Nicollet.
The area has new amenities that urban dwellers demand, such as two new high-end grocery stores and expanding access to light rail. And the market now accommodates rents of more than $2 per square foot, making high-rise buildings economically feasible for developers.
Those developers hope to capitalize on the popularity of apartment living elsewhere. Tom Lund with Opus Development, which is building the Nicollet tower, noted that at least 10 high-rise projects have gone up in Chicago in the past 36 months. "That was probably our best benchmark," Lund said.
"Most cities are moving towards more density for a number of reasons," said Charles Landry, a British expert on cities who toured the Twin Cities in May. "One of which is obviously to making things like public transport viable."
Landry said decisions on density should take into account the surrounding neighborhood, however. He notes that the 1970s-era Riverside Plaza buildings looming as high as 39 stories over a low-rise landscape in Cedar-Riverside "just physically doesn't feel right." In many areas outside of downtown Minneapolis, the zoning typically limits buildings to no more than eight stories.
Council Member Gary Schiff, who chairs the zoning and planning committee, says he wishes housing construction were happening twice as fast as it is. Minneapolis' 1.6 percent apartment vacancy rate is among the lowest in the country.
The intense rental housing demand is coming from the millennials, a graying baby boom generation and a consistent wave of immigrants, Schiff said. That means abandoning the notion that rental housing means inviting people who aren't invested in the community, he said.
"Rental housing is entering a new era where it's sought by the populations that cities really want to retain," Schiff said.
Another significant question is whether the city's zoning code will accommodate developers hoping to build multistory projects. Zoning classifications lay out how tall a building can be, how much parking it must have, how small developers can build the units and other specifications. Developers have to get special permission for exceptions.
Kelly Doran, a developer and CEO of Doran Companies, believes the city's requirements for height, parking and minimum unit size can sometimes be arbitrary and onerous. And despite the rhetoric about density, he can't understand why more zoning districts don't allow for it.
"I [have] said there are two books in my life that I've read that are subject to great interpretation. One is the Bible, and one is the Minneapolis zoning code," Doran said.
Other cities trying to encourage growth have switched to a "form-based" zoning code that prioritizes neighborhood characteristics over how the land will be used -- residential, commercial, etc. Schiff believes the city is moving in that direction by removing limits on what kinds of uses can be located in different zones.
"I don't think that city policy or zoning is the big obstacle," Hanson Willis said. "And I think that the marketplace is responding."
Minneapolis never quite recovered from the urban exodus and highway construction that sapped the city's population in the 1960s and '70s. At a population of 521,718 in 1950, it was the 17th-largest city in the nation. In 2010, it was 48th.
But as housing stock grows denser, there are signs that growth is coming. The city's population remained unchanged between 2000 and 2010, but shot up 1.4 percent to an estimated 387,873 in 2011. Demographers now expect that 400,000 is around the corner.
"I anticipate that Minneapolis will continue to grow at several thousand [people] a year as new households come in to take up the new housing that Minneapolis is very clearly building," said Libby Starling, the Metropolitan Council's research manager.
Of the 400,000 population projection, Rybak said, "Our goal is to dramatically go beyond that in the next census."
Eric Roper • 612-673-1732 Twitter: @StribRoper