Lena Gardner's vision for a slate of vacant properties in north Minneapolis was exactly what city leaders said they want: denser, more affordable housing on former single-family lots.

The neighborhood supported it. The city offered her nonprofit, Black Lives of Unitarian Universalism (BLUU), assistance to fund it.

But when she presented the plan for the first triplex to the city, planning staff said it didn't fit the neighborhood. A City Council committee agreed, telling her to go back to the drawing board.

Gardner had to scale the project back, eliminating amenities such as balconies and shrinking the third floor. While construction is on schedule to begin this summer, she's not sure whether she will run into the same obstacles for the next seven lots in her pipeline.

"I think that zoning law could change to be more reasonable and equitable because we are trying to provide housing — we're providing four-bedroom, 2½-bath, brand-new construction with significant investments from the city of Minneapolis," Gardner said.

Despite the 2040 Comprehensive Plan's elimination of single-family zoning four years ago, zoning codes are still being updated to align with the plan.

BLUU snapped up eight tax-forfeited properties in 2019 with plans to build triplexes on each lot. A total of 24 units would be sold to people making at most 60% of area median income. The homeowners would form a limited-equity housing cooperative, sharing the costs of maintenance, child care and food-buying. The land would be kept perpetually affordable by the City of Lakes Community Land Trust.

Last summer BLUU and its partner Urban Homeworks, a developer of affordable housing rentals, received neighborhood approval for architect Damaris Hollingsworth's designs for the first of its triplexes at 1338 Logan Av. N. They received a commitment of $923,000 from the Minneapolis Homes program to keep the purchase price affordable pending closing. But the plans required variances from the zoning code to increase the height by 1 foot and the gross floor area by about 1,000 square feet.

The developers argued that the lots' narrower-than-average size made it difficult to build a triplex without those variances, despite the 2040 Plan's endorsement of duplexes and triplexes in parts of the city formerly zoned for single-family homes. City staff recommended denying their request for the variances, countering that the bulk of the property would shadow its neighbors and fail to blend in. At the end of January, the City Council's Business, Inspections, Housing and Zoning Committee unanimously sided with staff, rejecting the variances.

No one from the neighborhood had complained about BLUU's triplex design. Project supporter William Wells, a triplex architect, criticized the city's review process as overly arduous for small developers of affordable housing. The Northside Residents Redevelopment Council (NRRC) also made it clear it supported the variances, commending developers in a statement for "the care and time taken to develop this vision in collaboration with our community."

The neighborhood group had earlier voiced strong objections to a much larger 63-unit apartment complex proposed for the corner of Plymouth and Russell Avenues on the grounds that the neighborhood lacked a grocery store and other infrastructure to support the influx of residents. That development, which had asked the city for significant variances reducing various setbacks — including the front yard by more than 30 feet — was nevertheless approved.

"NRRC recommends that before variances are reviewed by zoning the developer should be able to demonstrate actual community support for the requested variances," said Martine Smaller, NRRC executive director.

BLUU and Urban Homeworks submitted the new, scaled-back design that would not require any variances. It was approved in mid-February.

The project was left with "zero outdoor space," said Gardner. The redesign cost the developers $45,000.

Construction on 1338 Logan is set to begin this summer and last about a year and a half. Families could move in as soon as 2025.

Urban Homeworks Executive Director AsaleSol Young said they hope to recruit the first homebuyers among people, especially single mothers, currently living in one of Urban Homeworks' 134 affordable rental homes. "Lena's focus, which aligns perfectly with Urban Homeworks' focus, is to really close the stability and wealth gap for Black and Indigenous families," Young said.

Despite voting to turn down the variances for 1338 Logan, City Council Member Jeremiah Ellison proposed working out a "sustainable solution" that developers face while building denser housing on small single-family lots.

"Important points were made about equity and maybe some of the law changes that need to happen," he said. "I want to better understand if this is going to be an issue that BLUU is going to run into on every single project that they have."

The city of Minneapolis' code development team is working on citywide land use rezoning, a part of implementing the 2040 Plan. The Land Use Rezoning Study is expected to be completed this summer. Once it's done, the code development team will turn to other zoning code updates, said Community Planning and Economic Development spokesman John Louis.

"How to reduce barriers for the production of missing middle housing in general is a goal and looking at regulatory barriers that may exist will be considered as part of that overall work," Louis said.