One of the most commonly heard phrases at planning commission meetings where a contentious, density-increasing project is proposed is: “I’m in favor of increased density, but this is out of character for our neighborhood.”
It’s not always an exaggeration — because of the lack of properly zoned parcels for larger developments, developers try to get as much mileage out of the few remaining as they can by requesting variances for larger unit counts and floor-area ratios. While the debate over the Sons of Norway redevelopment in the Uptown neighborhood of Minneapolis was one of the loudest debates over density in recent memory, similar fights have cropped up over nearly every apartment that inches too close to lower-zoned neighbors. Which is why the changes to the Minneapolis comprehensive plan to universally allow fourplexes in every neighborhood should be seen as a welcome development (“Housing solution: Put apts. anywhere,” March 8, and “Mpls. fourplex idea draws mixed reaction,” March 11).
Before downzoning in the 1970s, small apartment buildings and multiplex housing were the standard in Minneapolis outside of downtown. Now, although many of these buildings that survive are an important supply of affordable rental housing in Minneapolis, these buildings are nonconforming to the current R1 or R2 zoning code. If a fire broke out along Harriet or Bryant avenue and destroyed apartment buildings, under the current code, only single-family homes would be allowed to be built in their place, and we would potentially lose even more naturally affordable housing.
So with that in mind, these changes to the zoning code offer an alternative to building R6-scale developments on R4-zoned land. While development by variance rapidly densifies corridors and removes the residential feel of a neighborhood with the common addition of street-level retail, allowing smaller-yet-denser developments would spread the demand out and preserve the character of our urban neighborhoods. Allowing fourplexes by right isn’t exactly a return to pre-1970s zoning; a four-unit development is far smaller than some of the mini-apartments that dot Minneapolis’ residential neighborhoods. But it will allow for development to begin to fix the deficit of new and affordable housing we’ve faced in the years since.
Not only would this help maintain the current character of Minneapolis neighborhoods, but it also would open up possibilities for smaller developers to make their mark on the city. Having to fight to fit as many units on the few densely zoned parcels in the city is a game that only developers with a stocked war chest for appeals and time to spare can play. Tired of every apartment development looking the same? Fewer developers means fewer architects, and the result is less variety. If any property owner in Minneapolis is able to, by right, build a fourplex on their property, this can open the door for smaller-pocketed individuals. With more opportunities for entrepreneurs to offer their design perspectives to Minneapolis, we’ll better maintain our eclectic neighborhoods and keep them from looking identical.
Minneapolis continues to grow at a rapid clip, and one way or another, the city is going to need to determine how to fit all of those new residents in. Cutting a compromise between restoring zoning to pre-1970s levels and maintaining the status quo is the best way to grow our city sustainably and ensure that increased density doesn’t change what we love about Minneapolis. This plan represents a responsible approach to density and should be commended.
Matt Eckholm lives in St. Louis Park.