A veiled attempt to halt growth in Minneapolis

  • Article by: EDITORIAL BOARD , Star Tribune
  • Updated: February 7, 2014 - 6:54 PM

City Council considers a veiled attempt to stop density.

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After decades of relative slumber, Minneapolis is finally showing signs of growing into the urbanized city that it needs to become. So, naturally, there’s a move afoot to slam on the brakes. Not everyone, it seems, is happy with more people, more housing, and filling in sparse commercial areas with new apartments, shops and vitality.

That view is understandable, but it’s also dangerously shortsighted. Council Member Cam Gordon’s well-intentioned proposal for “conservation districts” unfortunately has become a vehicle for those hoping to stop redevelopment in its tracks, or at least to divert it to anywhere that’s not near them.

True, a few of the new residential/commercial buildings popping up around the city could have been more gracefully fitted into their surroundings. But Minneapolis desperately needs the density and tax base that those buildings represent if it wants to stay afloat financially and stay competitive in the chase for young talent.

Gordon’s proposal unearths some legitimate concerns about some of the new buildings: cheap materials, insufficient landscaping and bulky, unimaginative designs that occasionally offend the existing neighborhood scale. But handing over the “solution” to small cadres of current property owners with the authority to veto projects that, in their view, fail to reflect the neighborhood scale would only add another bureaucratic layer to an already overly complex and politicized process.

Surprisingly, Mayor Betsy Hodges was noncommittal when asked about conservation districts during a recent meeting with the Editorial Board. If she’s serious about her campaign pledge to emphasize population growth, she’ll oppose the concept.

The problem isn’t, as some suggest, that mega buildings are threatening single-family homes. There is no threat. Very few, if any, such homes are being razed to make room for apartment towers. What is happening is that largely marginal commercial districts — dominated by surface parking lots and a scattering of low, suburban-scale buildings — are filling in with urban-scale, mixed-use structures of modest height, rarely higher than six stories. That is precisely what needs to happen, especially along current or future transit lines.

The “existing neighborhood scale” that some residents want so badly to conserve is a version of city life that sprang up after World War II and now has happily run its course. Hollowed-out cities that lost their urban fabric over the last half-century are gradually becoming cities again. This is good news for Minneapolis. But to make the transition more palatable, especially to older residents, City Hall may have to tweak its development process.

Conservation districts aren’t the answer. But, as Council Member Lisa Bender suggests, infusing design standards into the current system might be worth considering. Indeed, it’s often not really the size of a building that offends, but how the size is arranged. If, for example, developers provide lush landscaping at sidewalk level and set back the taller portion of a structure away from the street, maybe they should be allowed to build higher and more slender toward the back. The building would have the same total volume but would show a less bulky, less intrusive profile.

As for complaints about views, shadows and a higher level of street buzz, neighbors must get used to the fact that they’re living in a city, that successful cities require taller buildings and that healthy cities are constantly being rebuilt.

They are being rebuilt, by the way, not for current residents, but for people whom the cities need to attract in the future. And therein lies the paradox. No one at the City Council or in the mayor’s office represents an important constituency — the city’s next generation of residents.

  • A BAD IDEA

    The Minneapolis City Council should reject conservation districts because they would:

    • Discourage population and tax-base growth.

    • Offer no input for renters.

    • Provide no say for future residents.

    • Further politicize the development process.

    • Add another layer of bureaucracy.

    • Use arbitrary “visual character” standards to block new development.

    • Preserve residential neighborhoods that aren’t really threatened.

    • Preserve commercial areas that, for the most part, aren’t worth preserving.

    • Provide a stalking horse for NIMBYism.

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