‘Livability” has different meanings depending on whom you ask. To some, it’s a metric of the quality of life in a given area, based on factors such as grocery availability, rent-to-income ratios, or available transportation and cultural amenities. To others, it’s a word intended to be used like a club to beat back multifamily housing and high-density zoning.

The target in question this week? The Sons of Norway redevelopment project in the Uptown area (“Know your zoning: Beware the high-density disaster,” Jan 2).

It’s because of this word’s versatility that anti-development articles like this one lean so heavily on it. Nobody wants to be against livability. But when the authors of such articles define livability in narrow terms such as guaranteed parking on the street outside my house, it’s disingenuous at best.

The commentary’s author mentions that he and his many neighbors have lived in the Uptown area “more than 30 years.” Interesting, given that more than 30 years ago, the zoning code in much of the Lowry Hill East and East Calhoun neighborhoods looked quite different. But after much lobbying by neighborhood groups, large swaths of the city were downzoned to R1 (single family, low density). At the time, this was pitched as a way to prevent Cedar-Riverside-style developments from being built next to single-family homes. But the inevitable result was preventing not just tenement towers, but smaller rental units as well.

Flash forward to today, and Minneapolis has a 2 percent rental vacancy rate. Apartment development is restricted to the few parcels that are still zoned R4 and above (like the Sons of Norway parcel), and getting as many units on that land as possible becomes a game of development by variance. A select few developers with the resources to fight for variances end up building most of the multifamily housing in the city, while many more choose instead to build in less-restrictive markets.

Large, dense apartment complexes like the one proposed for the Sons of Norway site are the result of not being able to build smaller apartment buildings, duplexes, and the wide variety of housing styles that reside between single-family homes and six-story buildings — otherwise known as the “missing middle.” If opponents of the current proposal aren’t “anti-development,” as they claim, they too would see the value in spreading out the density across the Uptown area in smaller developments and would call for the rollback of the 1970s-era downzoning. And yet, we’re focused on parking, parking, parking. Why?

After the changes to the zoning code in the 1970s, the single-family homes that the author and his neighbors purchased 30 or more years ago — bolstered by the lack of new housing supply in the neighborhood — have substantially increased in value. According to information from the Minneapolis city website, the median house value in East Calhoun was $148,179 in 1980 and $256,500 by 2000. According to Zillow, the median is now $427,500.

Compare this with the average housing value citywide ($115,039 in 1980, $113,467 in 2000 and $240,500 today). When you do, it’s a bit clearer why someone might have a vested interest in preventing development from occurring in a very tight market.

But the residents of East Calhoun don’t want you to focus on how they personally benefit from restrictive zoning. They’d rather you worry about getting your cooler or your kids to the lake, channeling your reaction to inconvenience for their gain.

Livability means different things to different people. To me, livability means affordable housing and ease of mobility whether or not one has access to a car. To some, it’s a convenient dodge to avoid talking about their personal benefit from a broken zoning code.

 

Matt Eckholm lives in St. Louis Park.