An apartment building under construction at 3333 Hennepin Av. was designed in direct response to Minneapolis' 2040 Plan.

Formerly a single-family house, the site will become 11 market-rate rentals with an office for Riley Cos., which owns and manages about 100 units in the Twin Cities area. Sustainability elements that appealed to the South Uptown Neighborhood Association included preserving the mature trees on the property and installing a geothermal heating system.

But as construction began, neighbor Mark Bradby watched crews clear-cut every tree. He also noticed that the requisite wells weren't being dug for geothermal.

"It was sold as a very beneficial project for the environment. What actually is getting built is not what they proposed and what they secured approval with. … They're definitely increasing the impervious area on the site, and they're increasing the heat island," Bradby said.

The 2040 Plan was passed in 2018 to guide the long-range development of the city. It was nationally recognized by ecological urbanists for ending single-family zoning, allowing denser housing everywhere in a bid to constrain urban sprawl. But not all environmentalists were on board, and now a court ruling has upended the plan, sending city officials and developers scrambling to take stock of the fallout.

AWH architect John Greene and Keven Riley of Riley Cos. acknowledged that 3333 Hennepin's tight construction space required removing the trees. And while a shortage in contractors available to drill the wells forced them to pivot from geothermal to a split system heat pump, they are staying true to their promise of a totally electrified apartment building. It will also have a highly insulated envelope, rain garden, native plant landscaping and elevator for disability access.

"When we started the project [in 2020], it was a different market," Greene said. "So when we had to look at all of the rising costs, we always went back to the goals of the project."

Saving green space

On the eve of 2040's passage, its opponents raised a legal challenge, insisting Minneapolis conduct an environmental analysis under the Minnesota Environmental Rights Act (MERA). The Audubon Chapter of Minneapolis, Minnesota Citizens for the Protection of Migratory Birds, and Smart Growth Minneapolis argued that density could lead to more vehicle congestion, decreased air quality and proliferation of hard surfaces — intensifying local flooding under climate change.

After years of litigation, the trio scored a victory when the District Court ordered Minneapolis to cease implementation of the 2040 Plan, sending rezoning projects into limbo.

The local Audubon is a well-known bird conservation organization in existence since the 1920s. Minnesotans for the Protection of Migratory Birds is a newer group that formed in opposition to U.S. Bank Stadium. Smart Growth Minneapolis is the youngest of the trio, created as a vehicle to organize opposition to the 2040 Plan, according to its co-founder John C. Goetz, a personal injury lawyer by trade who says he's an environmentalist at heart, having donated 550 acres of the Wo Wacintanka Wildlife Management Area in southern Minnesota to the Department of Natural Resources.

Executive Director Rebecca Arons knows 2040's supporters suspect Smart Growth of not being a real environmental organization so much as a political outfit obstructing growth.

"It's frustrating that we are being cast as anti-density, anti-development, NIMBY," she said. "We are for … knowing how to do density right. How are you going to align it with infrastructure so that you don't cause polluted runoff into our cities and lakes? How are you going to prevent gentrification by incentivizing builders to gobble up naturally affordable housing?"

Smart Growth's lawyer Jack Perry has been winning on those arguments, but his involvement has raised eyebrows among those who remember how he represented Northern Metals Recycling against the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, a central Minnesota feedlot against neighbors complaining of the stench, and other industries.

"I was specifically hired because I have done slews of work for — whether it's landfills, sand and gravel pits, powerlines, feedlots — any number of what I call necessary, unwanted uses … [where] the public intuitively knows you need to do environmental review," responded Perry. "I know how to comply with that."

Controlling carbon emissions

Still, many other local environmental groups were disappointed to see the lawsuit derail a plan that would ostensibly control carbon emissions by encouraging housing near public transportation and ending parking minimums for new development.

Peter Wagenius, Sierra Club North Star's legislative and political director, said there's no answer to the climate crisis that doesn't include inviting more people to move to cities, as people living in denser areas pollute less per capita than people who don't.

"There's a long list of factors. It includes driving distances, access to transit, walkability, and the heating and cooling efficiencies of multifamily housing," he said. "[The lawsuit's] analysis fails to understand that people are going to live somewhere. … If we forced development to the suburban fringe, we are forcing more people to drive more often and for much longer distances."

Sam Rockwell of the transit advocacy group Move Minnesota is a former president of the Minneapolis Planning Commission. He points out the plan calls for a wide range of environmental benefits such as carbon neutrality by 2050, climate-resilient plantings and improving building standards.

"Land uses drive huge amounts of emissions, and we know the Number 1 harm to biodiversity is climate change," Rockwell said. "To set that aside … I think really loses the forest for the trees."

Environmental justice

As Minneapolis officials determine their next course of action after Judge Joseph Klein ordered the city to revert back to its expired 2030 Plan for Sustainable Growth, the debate continues as to whether the 2040 Plan is sufficiently considerate of poor people and people of color.

Civil rights activist and attorney Nekima Levy Armstrong carries the torch of environmental justice on the side of the plaintiffs, arguing Minneapolis' minority communities bear the brunt of high asthma rates due to congestion and industrial zoning, thinner tree canopy and smaller green spaces. A plan encouraging more rentals doesn't acknowledge that people of color want to own homes, which builds wealth, she said.

Advocates of 2040 also promoted equity. Single-family zoning, they argued in 2018, was historically employed to further racial and economic segregation.

Since 2040 took effect two years ago, it has allowed the Minneapolis Public Housing Authority (MPHA) to begin building 84 family units on 16 sites formerly reserved for single-family homes.

With 8,000 people waiting to move into MPHA's 900 units of family housing, these additional 84 made possible by the 2040 Plan are "an incredible benefit," said Brian Schaffer of the MPHA.

Levy Armstrong distinguishes between regulated public housing and most new developments.

Guided by 2040, Minneapolis' Inclusionary Zoning ordinance requires large multifamily projects to include some affordable units. So far, no applicable developers have opted to build housing more affordable than 60% area median income, or $44,100 for a single-person household.

"The city turned over the keys to developers," Levy Armstrong said. "They are trying to maximize profits. We've seen with the developments that have cropped up around the Twin Cities, they're for folks in the upper echelon."