It may soon be easier for fraternities and sororities to open or expand chapter houses around the University of Minnesota, thanks to proposed changes to the city’s zoning code.

Under the new guidelines, chapter houses could be taller, house more people and be built on smaller lots. It’s an effort to serve the U’s growing Greek community.

“It was clear to me the code was outdated,” said Council Member Jacob Frey, who represents parts of the U campus and introduced the proposed changes in July.

The city’s Planning Commission signed off on the changes Monday. The City Council will have final approval.

Students, alumni and the U administration drove the push for zoning code changes, said Maggie Towle, associate vice provost for student life.

The U has 33 fraternity and sorority chapter houses, all privately owned. Since 2011, Greek membership at the U has grown from 6 percent of undergraduates to about 11 percent, according to the Office for Fraternity and Sorority Life. In fall 2016, more than 20 percent of U freshmen joined a Greek organization.

“A lot of our groups do feel like they are outgrowing the facilities that they’re in,” said James Ehrmann, program director at the Office for Fraternity and Sorority Life. “When you have a fraternity or sorority house, you want that to sort of be the home for students — the home away from home.”

Attracting new chapters

In addition to the need to expand housing for existing chapters, there’s also interest in bringing new fraternities and sororities to the U, Ehrmann said. To attract them, he said, there needs to be an opportunity to secure housing soon after they arrive on campus.

“Per the current ordinance, that isn’t a realistic possibility,” Ehrmann said.

Under the updated zoning code, chapter houses still will be confined to within a half-mile of campus. But new chapter houses could be built on lots where a fraternity or sorority hasn’t been located before — something not allowed under current zoning code.

That requirement “really limited the ability to establish new [chapter houses],” said City Planner Peter Crandall. “Taking that away will open it up to more area within the city.”

Neighborhood leaders in the Marcy-Holmes area, which is already home to chapter houses, are supportive of the zoning code changes, said Doug Carlson, neighborhood association treasurer. Fraternities and sororities have been “a stabilizing force” on that side of the neighborhood, he said, maintaining their properties and receiving more intense supervision than other off-campus housing in the area.

“Those groups have been there for a long time,” he said. “I would say they’re good citizens.”